Recently, we had the honor of listening to Eric Osterhus, Vice President of PivotPR and the former Brand Communications Manager for the U.S. National Whitewater Center, on how to take a strategic approach using social media to properly manage potential crisis.
A crisis can present itself at any time. Oftentimes, it’s when a company or organization is growing and they are excited about what’s in store for their future; but then, they’re suddenly blindsided by something they didn’t expect. Remember, crisis can happen to anyone.
In 2016, the U.S. National Whitewater Center had a key strategy and message for their audience of get outside and play. This involved marketing their activity passes, trail runs, special events and spending time with family and friends outside. Virtually overnight, their strategy and messaging changed.
On June 21, the USNWC had to put their crisis communication strategies in place when they received a phone call about a bacteria that was in their water.
Unfortunately, as most crises go, news spread fast and suddenly news outlets all over the country and even some internationally were covering the news of a young woman’s death due to this bacteria.
Eric says they quickly had to craft their strategy and decide how they were going to handle the following days, weeks and months.
They decided they were going to focus on two strategies: one from the management side and one from the public side. From a management perspective, the USNWC was in a state of growth. They had just broken 1 million visitors to the center, they were about to celebrate their 10 year anniversary and they were discussing growth plans. Since there’s a risk in nearly all center activities, there were contingency plans already in place in case someone was hurt or something happened - but there was never a plan for this. They had to ensure the safety of their guests while also handling the present situation.
Secondly, they had to complete a communication plan on how to address this to the public. Eric and his team came up with the term “ACT,” which meant all of their communication must be authentic, consistent and transparent. This was their guiding post as they handled every tweet, post, etc once the crisis hit.
Effect on Social Media
Most people head to social media to find information quickly and efficiently, so there was a lot of demand for immediate and direct conversation from news outlets to influencers of varying sizes. Since news spreads like wildfire on social media, the center was learning facts just shortly before the public knew them due to online access to information.
The USNWC decided to be the central voice of consistency rather than putting that power into the hands of the public. Thus, Eric and his team decided that they would disseminate all of their information in a series of written press releases posted to their website. This was how they sent information out to staff, social media, and traditional media.
They sent out 5 press releases: the first was a letter from the CEO, next were CDC results, the third were FAQ’s, the fourth was a water quality plan and the fifth were the final details and the announcement of the center’s reopening. These five press releases were the only source of information given to the media in the span of three months. This gave USNWC the autonomy to direct the conversation.
Outcomes and Lessons Learned
As you can imagine, the conversation didn’t stop the day USWNC was reopened. Eventually, it switched from talking about the crisis to talking about trail runs, concerts, and everything else the center has to offer.
Eric says from this experience his team learned a few lessons that we can take away but, hopefully, never use.
“Tune in on Day 1 and collaborate your messaging as soon as a crisis happens. We had a lot of players at hand with their own perspectives of the situation. About a week into the crisis our CEO started communication to the other players about 2-3x a week to get on the same page. We all realized we needed each other to succeed.”
“Lots of times people will take information and fit it into a narrative that has already been decided. We live in a real time media landscape where social media is a major part of that. Try and take control of the narrative.”
Eric said they were very appreciative of how members of the media treasured the USNWC and came to their defense. You will see members of your community sticking up for you in a crisis.
It’s tough to be prepared for every possible situation since a crisis can happen to anyone at any time. There are lots of tools online for a crisis communication plan but Eric says these questions can help you develop a possible strategy.
At the USNWC they assembled the marketing, operations, management, etc. and decided who the voice would be. Who is fielding media questions? Who is available when statements to the public need to be made?
Think about who you are speaking to. Eric was speaking to the community, a mom of 4 kids who was concerned for their son or daughter’s safety. “We wanted to speak to them directly and then carry it louder.”
What’s the voice of your organization? How do you present yourself externally? “Keep your voice of your organization even through a crisis since there’s never a more important time to stay true to yourselves.”
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