"Twitter is a messaging service—some say micro-blogging—that allows users to send and receive messages, known as Tweets, to and from a huge cross section of people they’ve chosen to follow on-line."
What do Ford, Ashton Kutcher, the Air Force, the Pentagon, the LA Fire Department, CNN, and Hugh Jackman all have in common? Twitter! And as Domino’s Pizza found out recently, ignoring this micro-messaging service comes at your own peril. The story of how two rogue employees deliberately contaminated food, filmed the vile acts, and posted them to YouTube is well documented and was the subject of countless Twitter messages. The pizza chain may find itself as “infamous” as Tylenol or Exxon in the case-study department.
Both the new and the old media have been abuzz with the speed and the nascent power of social media, Twitter in particular. As Richard Levick said in a recent column in BusinessWeek “If there was any question that damaging blog posts, tweets, and viral videos have changed the ground rules and raised the stakes for crisis communication and brand protection those were laid to rest forever with the prank video by the two Dominos employees.”
The Truth About Twitter
So what, exactly, is Twitter? It is a communication tool! It works instantaneously! It is real-time information. Twitter is a messaging service—some say micro-blogging—that allows users to send and receive messages, known as Tweets, to and from a huge cross section of people they’ve chosen to follow on-line. One Twitter enthusiast says twitter is “instant messaging open to the world”. Twitter itself says “it is a service for friends, family, and co-workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?” Messages are restricted to 140 characters. I think of Twitter as part news service, part library (I frequently find links to very good research like Forrester, white papers, plus lots of free and very useful information). Twitter is part post-it note, part modern-day town crier, and part “dear diary.”
The service is free but requires registration and works from computers or mobile phones. Once you have an account you can send messages to other Twitter users, who have opted to follow you. Messages are also “discoverable” on Twitter’s powerful search engine. For example, for this article, I did a Twitter search (http://search.twitter.com/) on business continuity and found numerous tweets that mentioned business continuity, mostly in association with swine flu. I found only one obvious business continuity business using Twitter—AVDAR, based in the UK.
A search on the Pentagon reveals that it had (at the time of writing) 456 followers, while the Air Force (@AFPAA) had nearly 3500 followers. For the record, Ashton Kutcher has over 1.6 million followers—more than anyone else on Twitter; CNN—1.4 million, Hugh Jackman—a more modest 189, 957; Ford—5,127, and the LA Fire Department (@LAFD) has nearly 4000 followers.
As for AVDAR, which describes itself (in its Twitter bio) as a Business Continuity, Disaster Recovery and ISMS service for small businesses, operates a Twitter account exclusively for emergency status updates. Like the CDC, the AVDAR account is silent when no emergency exists.
Twittering in Times of Trouble
So how is Twitter being used in crisis and emergency communication? And why the focus on Twitter as opposed to other social media tools?
Why Twitter? One simple fact: it’s where audiences have congregated. Twitter grew nearly 1400 percent from February 2007 to February 2008 and has over 7 million unique visitors monthly. Although some have questioned its long-term viability (a recent Nielsen study showed it has a monthly retention rate of only 40 percent), Twitter is, in the words of noted social media commentator Shel Holtz, “the eight bazillion pound gorilla of micromessaging.”
Twitter also is increasingly the source and channel for emergency and crisis communication as well as a news distribution service, as evidenced by the growing number of government organizations and utilities that are using the 140-character service. The US Department of Labor uses Twitter to distribute news. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) uses Twitter for information and updates during emergencies, and the Los Angeles Fire Department, which has been using Twitter since March 2007, tweets regularly with updates and information about wildfires and related activity.
So let’s look at Twitter and its role in crisis and emergency communication. A study by the University of Colorado at Boulder shows that it’s increasingly where people go for information. Online social interaction centers around the “emergency period” of an event, researchers say. Quite simply, Twitter is fast becoming the go-to place for instant and emergency communication as it reflects real-time information. Holtz says that the reason Twitter has exploded on to the scene is two-fold:
- Flexibility—the service can be used in a variety of ways such as querying people for answers to questions, reporting news, communicating critical information in an emergency, exploring issues, building awareness, and even raising money for nonprofits. And tweets can easily be re-tweeted; what a powerful tool that is—ask Domino’s!
- Open API—An API is an Application Programming Interface, code released by Twitter so third parties can develop Twitter applications for everything from the iPhone to the Adobe Air desktop widget application. Hundreds of tools built on Twitter’s APIs have been released, enabling people to use Twitter in the manner best suited to their needs.
And from the very beginning, Twitter, which started in 2007, has proven itself useful in an emergency in three main ways:
- Everyday people directly affected by or in the vicinity can provide field reports—passersby took to Twitter as they witnessed the Mumbai terrorist attack.
- Mainstream media can aggregate reports from tweets of everyday people as part of their reporting efforts—CNN took direct feeds from Twitter when the Dallas Cowboys training tent collapsed in early May.
- Organizations at the center of the emergency can keep the community updated—CDC for H1N1 (swine flu) is but one recent example. Twitter has dramatically changed the government’s challenges during emergencies. Indeed, communication plans constructed during the avian bird flu have been rendered obsolete by the advent of social media, Twitter in particular.
The CDC had no choice but to intervene on Twitter when the number of people tweeting about H1N1 had reached over 10,000 per hour (imagine that volume of calls to a call center) saying that it was really germ warfare or that eating pork would give you the flu. The CDC tweeted frequently with links to advisories—linking is one of the most powerful and useful features of Twitter—and tweeted about the need “to cover your nose and mouth when you cough and sneeze.” (At the time of writing, the CDC had almost 178,000 followers.)
Probably the most famous use of Twitter recently was that of citizen journalist, Janis Krum, whose cell phone picture of the US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River was distributed instantly via TwitPic. That image (incidentally the breaking news source) has become one of the most indelible images of the event and the speed at which it happened is a compelling reminder of the power of the social media.
Other crises and emergencies where Twitter has been used include:
- The San Diego wildfires were reported by mainstream media largely thanks to tweets from people in the affected areas. The Los Angeles Times aggregated a lot of this information to produce its own Twitter stream, keeping people up to date on the fire’s progress.
- During an ice storm, Public Service New Hampshire used Twitter to keep citizens updated, notably those who had lost power (but could still connect to the Internet on battery-powered laptops or through their mobile phones).
- One Twitter user provided a steady stream of updates on an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay.
- The Air Force used Twitter to correct a story on CNN of a crash of Air Force C-17. A witness reported a crash and within minutes the story was on CNN. Seventeen minutes later, Air Force countered that the story wasn’t true. Fifty-seven minutes later, CNN retracted the story. Rumor control was phenomenal and empowering.
- The State Department recently saw a rumor on Twitter that the US was harboring people in Madagascar. According to Government 2.0 Club, the State decided that because the rumor was started on Twitter, they were going to combat it on Twitter, and they were successful.
- Ford Motor Company used Twitter extensively to solve The Ranger Station PR crisis. It might have taken 24 hours and over 100 Tweets (plus some well-timed phone calls), but the issue was squashed.
- AT&T used Twitter very effectively to update customers affected when a cable was cut and lines went down.
Twittering as a Tool
Clearly a compelling reason to set up a company Twitter channel is so it will be available when an emergency occurs. Dominos set up their account after embarrassing video was spread across YouTube.
Aaron Allen, chief executive of restaurant consulting firm Quantified Marketing Group says that Twitter is a “bellwether for what consumers are thinking”.
Organizations not attuned to Twitter as an early warning system for a crisis, as Holtz, says “need to wake up.” Domino’s was not the first to be blindsided by a controversy that spread via Twitter but quickly spread beyond its boundaries into other online and mainstream channels. Amazon.com and Motrin have both suffered from lack of response to a surge of negative Twitter messages they were not monitoring.
It is very important to build trust and credibility in your brand, your organization, and your spokespeople before a crisis or emergency hits. Share your knowledge and information with your community first. Indeed, many pundits agree that Twitter is powerful and valid only when people are expressing a strong opinion, giving freely of their expertise and knowledge—“anything that will help people”, says idea blog Thinking Outside of the Square.
It is also important to “listen,” to be interesting, and to be positive. Twitter’s “nifty queries” of “is down” and “love OR hate” is an interesting and quick way to find out if your organization is on anyone’s “hate” list or if there are grumblings about your brand.
Above all, be sociable, join conversations and stay in touch with those who follow you. They do so for a reason!
Twitter is a powerful tool for business continuity—not only can it help you grow the profession and its credibility, but it can be a real asset in your emergency communication planning. Like every tool, its use must be strategic. Think carefully about how and why you will use Twitter. Some questions for you to ponder about Twitter.
- What your organization is doing with social media?
- Is Twitter part of your BCM planning?
- Is Twitter part of your emergency notification plan?
- Who is responsible for monitoring the social media, Twitter in particular?
- Do you have policies and procedures for using social media?
- Who is empowered to “talk” on twitter? See how Chevron handles this on Twitter—Chevron_JustinH / Justin H w/ Chevron Official Chevron Corporation Twitterer.
- Do you have social media experts on your crisis management team, or advisers you can quickly call in?
- Are you doing social media training?
- Is social media incorporated into your exercises and drills?
- Who will “own” social media—Business Continuity, Corporate Communication, or another group?
- Have you done a social media audit in your organization to find out who is “listening and talking” on social media?
The bottom line is that Twitter is a very powerful messaging tool and you would be foolish to ignore it!CI
Direct Message, or “DM” in Twitter parlance, is a private message between Twitter users.
New/Social Media: New technologies are called by different names. Some call it New Media, others call it Social Media, and still others call it Web 2.0. All are referring to essentially the same thing.
Retweet: When one Twitter member retransmits another member’s tweet.
Tweet: A message on Twitter is called a tweet.
Twitter is a free online service that allows its users to share messages in 140 characters or less. Called “micro-blogging,” Twitter has become a platform for real-time online discussions that range from the mundane to breaking news stories. It can be found at http://twitter.com.
*Courtesy The Ranger Fire Case-study: How The Ford Motor Company used Social Media to extinguish a PR Fire in less than 24 hours by blogger, Ron Ploof
- www.BearingPoint.com/GovTwit—a “living” list of government departments using Twitter. You can also follow GovTwit on Twitter. • www.cio.com—search site for articles on Twitter. They have published a couple of good guides for businesses getting started on twitter.
- Shel Holtz—blog.holtz.com—a shel of my former self—good post on social media trends, communication strategy and related technology.
- Thinking Outside of the Square—blog—http://www.thinking-outside-of-the-square.com/blog/—has some good posts on social media—marketing focused.
- http://www.government20club.org—Government 2.0 Club says that it is there to convene the “tribe.” According to its website, Government 2.0 is a national organization that brings together leading thinkers from government, academia and industry to share ideas and solutions to leverage social media tools and Web 2.0.
Jane Jordan Meier is an international, crisis communication coach and trainer, based in Northern California. Jane, who works in the USA, New Zealand and Australia, has over 20 years experience is crisis media management. She is writing a book of managing the media in a crisis with a focus on the role of social media. She has become an avid social media watcher, writer and coach. You can reach her by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (707)386-9864 or www.janejordan.net, and you can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/aussiechic.