Red Cross offers key lessons in crisis communications

The disaster response agency uses an array of traditional and new media channels to deliver news and other messages—and, when necessary, to correct erroneous or outdated information.

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Every day, the American Red Cross faces crises big and small that the organization’s public relations team responds to with a strategy that relies heavily on social media.

“People always ask me… You must be great at crisis communication because you handle so many disasters,” Laura Howe, vice president for public relations for the American Red Cross, said at Ragan’s Breakthrough Strategies for Corporate Communicators conference. “I always tell people that for us, a disaster is not a crisis situation. If we can’t do PR around disasters, then we might as well not be in this business.”

Crisis communication has changed dramatically in the era of social media, which Howe said is today’s canary in the coal mine, once used to alert miners to dangerous conditions. When a crisis issue is “about to bubble,” organizations will see it on social media first, mainly Twitter, she said.

“It is the first place we go to detect a crisis and also deal with a crisis.”

This is excerpted from a Ragan Training video titled “Use social media to curtail a crisis from The Red Cross’s Laura Howe.”

To detect and respond to such issues, Howe said the Red Cross embraces a social engagement philosophy that emphasizes three things:

1. Empower social communities to execute the organization’s mission to prepare for, prevent, and respond to emergencies by providing valuable user-focused news and tools;

2. Grow a network of passionate supporters by listening, engaging, and acting on public conversations to improve services, enhance reputation, and build trust;

3. Strive to make social engagement part of the operational DNA of the Red Cross. All employees and volunteers must know how to advocate for the organization.

Howe said the last point is the “single biggest thing.”

“It has been scary for a lot of people, but has also been very, very empowering.”

The Red Cross’ emphasis on social engagement is so strong that the organization placed its Digital Operations Center in the middle of its Disaster Operations Center in Washington, D.C.

She said this new “social listening center,” a gift to the Red Cross from Dell, is the “hub and heart of what we do.”

“We can take information that we see from social media and use it to adjust our public messaging, use it to adjust our services and be responsive to the public whether we’re in midst of disaster or operational crisis,” Howe said. “This is a key part of our plan.”

She said the digital center helps the Red Cross more effectively manage data from Twitter, Facebook, blogs, YouTube, and other sites so it can be used by decision makers as they respond to a crisis.

The center is the “physical visualization and manifestation of our social media program,” she said.

Hurricane Sandy, which made landfall on the East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012, provided the ultimate test for Howe, her three full-time staffers and the trained volunteers recruited to work with the Digital Operations Center.

In the week before Sandy’s landfall, the Red Cross was sharing information on social media informing residents how to prepare for the superstorm. It also saw more than 400,000 downloads in October of its hurricane app, which had been pushed through social media and traditional media, Howe said.

At the height of the storm, the center was processing 27,000 pieces of social data per hour through the command center. In November 2012, it touched 2.5 million pieces of social data mentioning the Red Cross or storm aid.

“We weren’t responding to every single post and every single mention, but the ones that were the most urgent, and the ones that took priority for us, we were responding to directly,” Howe said.

“We have got to be nimble enough to use that information to adjust our message on the fly, or change services or products” being delivered during a crisis, she said.

With only three full-time staffers, Howe said between 30 and 50 volunteers were deputized to help with the 24/7 effort at the digital center.

She said organizations have many employees who are using social media in their personal lives. During a community or reputational crisis, they should be enlisted to help advocate on behalf of their employer.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Howe said there were many lessons that her organization has acted upon:

  • There is an enhanced training program in place to help employees and digital volunteers better interact with the public on social media.
  • The organization reached out to its “spontaneous advocates” and recruited them to join the digital volunteer force.
  • The Red Cross launched a Facebook group, Red Cross Social Heroes, and provided talking points, answers to frequently asked questions, and other information to advocates who respond to the public in their own voice.

Howe reminded PR professionals that they must prepare for the crush of questions and comments that follow a community or reputational crisis.

“It is amazing how fast things will bubble up on social media, how things will spread and then go viral, and how many people you will need to be responding on behalf of your organization,” she said.

Organizations must forecast the questions that will come at them from traditional and social media and deliver answers that are respectful, direct, and accurate, not embellished or defensive, she said.

“We’re thinking through, ‘Where is the story going tomorrow?'” and working to provide staffers and volunteers the information they need to appropriately respond in today’s instantaneous 24/7 news environment, she said.

“The power of these one-on-one interactions can be stunning, if you are willing to put yourself out there,” she said.

The Red Cross also uses a blog to correct facts, debunk myths, and share stories, photos, infographics, and other information.

Howe said that three goals of the Red Cross communications department is to be proactive in telling its story, interactive with the public, and reactive in engaging in crises or defending its reputation.

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