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Social media in crisis?

By Christine Townsend, Founder and CEO, MusterPoint, and Dave Worsell, Managing Director, Granicus (Europe) 

Through a series of joint blogs and events, Granicus (Europe) is teaming up with MusterPoint (social media monitoring specialists) to offer public sector communicators more opportunity to learn digital engagement best practices and techniques for tracking ‘success’ across a range of channels. In this first collaborative piece, Christine and Dave share some thoughts on effective ‘crisis communications’. 

Like many words, ‘crisis’ has both negative and positive connotations for different people. It’s all about the experiences we have had or the perceptions based on what we think to be true.

Some people see a crisis as a bad thing and dread the day one comes across their desk. It certainly has an ominous sound to it and is often associated with something that means a lack of control or has a ring of disaster about it.

Combine that with social media, which arguably is the very definition of relinquishing control – particularly from a comms perspective – and you’ve got crises multiplied and something more resembling panic.

However, there are some that see a crisis as an opportunity to test the processes put in place by an organisation or team to manage something to ensure the best possible outcome. Ultimately, a crisis always has positive aspects and is something many public sector organisations do very well. Christine will be speaking on 30 March at Granicus’ Cardiff Public Sector Digital Engagement Day during a masterclass where you too could learn best practices for handling comms in a crisis.

Social media is still divisive in so many ways and just when you think you’ve got everything in order and feel like you’re getting to grips with it, there’s a new development, a new app, a new platform or simply another article to say that social media is dead and we should all be looking at the next big thing.

The fact is, whether it’s the pen, the typewriter, the phone, the television, Ceefax (ask Google), Twitter, Snapchat, or gossiping over the garden fence – people will communicate and they have a certain level of expectation from public services. It’s about what we communicate more than how we communicate, though obviously the how must be appropriate for your target audience.

Therefore a crisis need never be that, regardless of the circumstances. By preparing before a crisis hits, it enables people to do their jobs effectively without having to play catch up. A systematic and consistent approach helps to provide that trusted voice that the public expect and if this can be carried through good times and bad then your messaging is likely to be more influential.

Although communicating the right stuff at the right time is paramount, you must also get the channels right for your audience. Indeed, what is the point in doing great comms if you don’t have an audience in the first place? So do take the time to find out where they spend time. Do they prefer text messaging to Twitter, or email updates to browsing websites? How are you growing your audience? You need to be proactive and lead people to the content they need in the event of a crisis. Ensure you’ve got several bases covered that are audience-specific. Not everyone will be glued to live updates on Twitter, so make sure you have a strategy for scaling your audience to other channels (email, SMS, website) well in advance of any crisis situation.

In the UK, 10 million citizens are subscribed to receive email and SMS updates from 150 government organisations in the Granicus Subscriber Network some of which have already built audiences equivalent to nearly 50% of the local population (Southampton and the London Borough of Havering councils for example). This ability to reach hundreds of thousands of people is vital, particularly when bad weather hits or there’s a gas leak.

Organisations joining the network can expect to double their audience reach within the first year – a huge opportunity for any public sector organisation that needs to engage more people, and quickly. The likes of the Met Office and Kent Fire and Rescue can’t afford to wait for something to happen before thinking about how they’ll get critical messages out to people; instead, they continue to build a pervasive digital comms ecosystem comprising different channels and messaging for various groups. Most importantly they are building a large engaged audience. The fact that you can now automate posts to multiple channels at once, pushing to or pulling from social media and automatically disseminating to email or SMS (and vice versa) will make communicating key messages quickly and efficiently in a crisis far easier – but only as long as you have put measures in place in advance and built an audience.

Learning lessons is key – constantly look at what worked and what didn’t and don’t be afraid to stop something that isn’t working. Digital media is as flexible and adaptable as you need it to be and enables you to go to where your audience is, but people are creatures of habit so look at where they meet, talk and search for information.

By ensuring there is a clear organisational narrative and good strong collaborative working with partners and stakeholders, social media can be used as part of a wider communication toolkit that effectively amplifies messaging and enables powerful engagement with the people that matter. You can make it work for you, and it needn’t be at the cost of any other medium or resource as long as you invest a little time in being proactive rather than reactive.