The recent plant explosion in West, Texas and the explosions aboard two fuel barges on the Mobile River in Alabama foreground the question of how well companies are conveying information to nearby neighborhoods and businesses.
Relying on local authorities and news media can’t be the only options anymore—not in a world where information is so easily communicated across multiple channels in rapid fashion. And especially not when danger could be eminent, such as additional explosions or air quality issues.
According to the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2012 Report, between 30 and 50 percent of nearly every demographic uses mobile phones and tablets to read news including on Facebook and Twitter. Responsible, cutting edge companies will be the ones that not only convey information in a timely statement to the media but also utilize their homepage as well as company social media accounts.
Crisis communication expert George Smalley of Bridge Builder Communications says, "A company's reliance on local authorities to serve as spokespeople during an industrial accident only works up to a point. In cases of off-site impacts, neighbors and other stakeholders expect to get information directly from the company, and not just via the news media. If a company doesn't communicate using social media during a crisis, it risks damaging its credibility and reputation."
So what are some of the must-dos a company should add to their crisis communication plan?
•Keep a "dark" crisis page for your website. This is a page that is not live anywhere on your website but can be immediately turned on in the event of a crisis. It should include an information phone number for the company, local emergency numbers, and links to the company’s social media accounts for updates.
•Start Twitter and Facebook updates immediately. Include links to the previously "dark" web page you have turned on as well as any other pertinent information. The faster you can do this, the faster your neighbors will help you spread the word.
•Text as many employees as possible at once. Do this with updated information including the links above. They in turn will help spread important information to their friends and family.
•Get your official company statement out as soon as you can. Do it right away, even if the company only has a few details on the crisis. If anything, the company can assure nearby businesses and neighborhoods that safety precautions are underway, an investigation will start as soon as possible, and can include the above links and phone numbers. Link this statement to the above website and social media accounts.
I personally live close to the Houston Ship Channel, home to many refineries and storage facilities for oil, gas, and chemical companies. It recently took one of these companies 7 hours to release any information on an explosion and the company spokesperson could not say whether or not local authorities had issued a shelter-in-place.
With a company website and with the most widely used social media channels—Facebook and Twitter—there is no reason a company can’t have this information available and shared within minutes. In the event of a crisis, a company must communicate the seriousness of the crisis immediately, even if there is little or none, and communicate on my terms, not theirs.
All it is going to take is one person dying because the company waited for the legal department to approve a statement that took the communications department hours to compose. When that happens, the company may not utilize their website and social media, but the public will utilize theirs.
Now more than ever, the neighborhood has a voice and, unlike your company, they know how to use it.
[Image: Flickr user Luis Argerich]