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Cheryl Fiandaca—the Boston Police Department’s public information bureau chief—was at the mall with her niece April 15 when her phone started going nuts.
It kept ringing but dropping every call. Finally she learned that two bombs had gone off at the Boston Marathon, in which her sister happened to be running.
Thus began a crisis of the sort no communicator wants to handle. Three people were dead, and more than 260 were injured, some severely maimed.
But the tragedy offers lessons for communicators seeking to navigate the storm of a crisis, Fiandaca says in a Ragan Training video, ” Communicating during the Boston bombings: How Boston PD schooled us on social media.”
When Fiandaca got the news, she took off in her car, talking on her phone. Her niece fielded her second phone, and texted a statement as they drove. First responders needed to get to the scene, and her niece tweeted, “Updates to follow. Please clear area around marathon finish line.”
— Boston Police Dept. (@bostonpolice) April 15, 2013
“Thank God I was with my 17-year-old niece and not my 50-year-old sister,” Fiandaca says, “because I don’t think she would have known anything about Twitter.”
Here are some lessons that emerged:
1. Set up your social media infrastructure
Moments after the bombing, so many people were on phones that service went out, says Fiandaca, who is now a Boston-area TV journalist. The Boston Police blog crashed. The only way to let people know what was going on was through Twitter.
Even after the social media assets came back up, the PD had differentiated its platforms for distinct uses. Its Facebook page—which leaped by 70,000 fans, to 85,000 that week—spread the word not only about crimes but also about charities.
Its Twitter account, which gained 245,000 fans that week, tended toward serious announcements, as did the blog. Media outlets had already been trained to look to these sources.
“We had the infrastructure set up before the bombing,” Fiandaca says.
Watch the full video session on RaganTraining.com.
With journalists and private citizens tweeting every rumor, Boston PD did not want to add to the confusion or have to correct statements later. That may seem obvious in a profession in which many are former journalists, but double- and triple-check news to prevent over-eager internal sources from feeding you a rumor you’ll have to correct.
“Not only would I call the commissioner, but I would also call the head of the detectives,” said Fiandaca, who had previously worked as a journalist and has since returned to broadcast reporting. “I would check in with four or five people to make sure we were all on the same page.”
3. Update regularly
Things are going nuts on Twitter. Citizens are tweeting photos of SWAT teams and naming their tactical locations. Keep people informed—and calm.
“No longer do you have to wait for the 5 o’clock news 6 o’clock news to come on to find out what’s going on,” she says. “People are getting updates on their iPhones and their smartphones all day long.”
4. Don’t forget other agencies and organizations
Boston PD had conference calls every morning and afternoon to make sure everyone was on the same page. It was essential to tweet manhunt updates and public safety announcements, but you can’t forget others. Boston’s hospitals were crowded with victims, and the police initially didn’t know whether the suspects might be among them. So it stationed SWAT teams at the hospitals. Communicators from the hospitals called and frantically asked: “What do we do? What do we tell our patients?”
5. Shrink the stage
When there’s a major crisis—and a big win for enforcement agencies—your local politicians will be eager to rush the stage during press conferences and beat their chests.
“One of the ways we managed that was to shrink the stage,” Fiandaca says.
Boston PD set up a smaller stage and told the political poobahs the press conferences were for law enforcement agencies, with few exceptions. Pols were welcome to attend and stand off to the side. Fiandaca would refer reporters to them for statements.
In the end, the police celebrated the capture of their suspect with their community—fittingly—through Twitter.
Boston PD tweeted, “CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody.”
CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody.
— Boston Police Dept. (@bostonpolice) April 20, 2013