I was invited to participate on a panel discussion this week on “Crisis Communications and Social Media,” joining two people on the front lines of what many would consider crisis of the day – Justin Fenton, crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun, and Anthony Guglielmi, spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department. If anyone understands crisis, it’s these two pros, while I provided insights from the crisis planning and PR viewpoints.
We got right into it, using the Sept. 16, 2010 shooting/barricade situation at Johns Hopkins Hospital as a focal point, but touched on a variety of topics on what it’s really like to deal with an actual crisis communications situation every day. Here are a few observations from the event co-sponsored by the Social Media Club of Baltimore and the Baltimore Public Relations Council:
On Statements and Staging Areas
Using social media, reporters will crowd-source information to piece together a story whether the company involved is ready or not. Recognize that while you craft and polish official statements, go through the approval process and plan your press conference, the posts, tweets and online updates will move along and evolve – along with public sentiment – with or without your input. If you can, pay attention to both.
As for setting up a location for the media, here’s what they really think: “If you’re creating a media-staging area, that’s the last place I want to be,” Fenton said. “Let the TV cameras go there, let them sit there and talk about their weekends, but I want to be in the middle of everything. If I could have gotten inside the hospital during it, I would have.”
Praise for Social Media and Its Speed
Fenton: “I’ll ask people what they saw or heard, some people might have taken photos or videos, and I’ll cobble together the accounts and tell people what happened without having to wait for the Monday morning briefing and the police report.”
Guglielmi: “In our eyes it’s a direct to consumer approach. We still do media relations, we still do community meetings and community affairs, but social media is another way to communicate with the public,” he said. “I was skeptical at first, but it’s incredibly helpful. Instead of sitting on the phone or sitting by a fax machine, sending information out to the media, and having the public wait for the 6 o’clock news or the newspaper the next day, we can get the information out, and it’s ‘our‘ information…it’s not through Justin’s lens or (WBAL-TV reporter) Jayne Miller’s lens, it’s what we want to put out, direct to the people we serve.”
Efficiency for Both Sides
Back in the day, police officers would be available during all shifts to pull reports and answer reporters’ questions. “We can’t do that anymore and pay for those positions, so social media helps us significantly in getting information out,” says Guglielmi, who oversaw the Department’s introduction of social media in March 2009 and now uses tools such as Ustream, Facebook, Twitter (@BaltimorePolice), YouTube and Nixle. Fenton noted how it helps the newspaper side as well – previously they would call the Public Affairs Department periodically throughout the day with “anything going on?” questions (to supplement monitoring the scanner). Now they monitor the Twitter feed, knowing the information will be posted there right away.
What About Focusing on Internal First?
Standard crisis communications protocols say you should inform employees first, but the panelists agreed the focus might as well be on external communications. “Why shouldn’t the public know?” was the reporter’s point of view, while Guglielmi pointed out that “internal” emails will eventually find their way to the media, so why not let everyone know about a serious situation?
What separates a solid journalist from a dude with a Twitter account is restraint and fact-checking. What Fenton first heard on the scanner the morning of the hospital shooting, and later via online sources, was not entirely accurate or verified. So rather than simply retweeting what others were instantly speculating, he couched it by initially tweeting “Hearing on scanner: someone may have been shot inside Hopkins Hospital…officers asking for supervisors, officers on roof.” He rushed to the scene and did what he could to verify and post as accurately as possible as the story developed, including withholding details about tactical operations that could put officers’ safety at risk. Others weren’t as responsible, Guglielmi said.