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Almost a year has passed since two bombs fashioned from pressure cookers detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring over 260. The alleged assailants also were implicated in the murder of an MIT police officer several days after the initial attack.
Nothing about the awful afternoon of the Marathon is more compelling than the stories of human tragedy and heroism that accompanied it. But alongside those stories is also a story of a transformed landscape of crisis communications — one overtaken by social media, moving at light speed and driven by the citizen activist rather than the C-suite. The dominant communications vehicles in the hours and days following the attack were neither the press release nor the press conference; they were instead the Twitter feed and the text message.
Therein lie lessons for leaders and corporate communicators for whom, unfortunately, crises are an increasingly common phenomenon. Most say that they are prepared for crises, yet few are truly prepared for the media intensity that follows — an observation made by former British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward about his company’s readiness for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf. As Hayward told the BBC, the lack of a robust contingency plan had the company “making it up day to day” in the full glare of the media spotlight.
Disaster sociologist Jeannette Sutton, who is a principal investigator at the HEROIC project (an acronym for Hazards, Emergency Response and Online Informal Communication), studied the impact of Twitter before and after the Marathon bombings. After reviewing what Sutton learned from tracking 31 officials and civic authorities, we’ve distilled six lessons for corporate leaders for both preparing for and reacting to a crisis:
Keep in mind that your stakeholders are, well, everyone.
Leaders are accustomed to identifying key stakeholders and communicating with them in terms they can understand. Technology has enabled them to segment those audiences into ever smaller ones micro-targeted with ever more precise messages. A corporate communications officer once told me that he only had to worry about 50 decision makers in total. In this new world, social media has amalgamated those subdivided audiences back into one undifferentiated crowd.
Communications via text and Twitter aren’t confined to audiences you select. They’re open to anyone who subscribes, or anyone who listens to someone who subscribes.