Social Media Lessons of Hurricane Sandy

10 Steps to Handle Any Social Media Crisis

As I sat without power in New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, I realized that there are significant social media lessons for businesses. Before Sandy swept through with her powerful winds, the idea of a hurricane in New York City bringing down so many critical services concurrently and wrecking this level of terrible damage and disruption was unimaginable.

Before, during and after Sandy I experienced both personal and business disruptions. Against this backdrop, I watched family, friends, social media colleagues and the public pull together to help and support each other. I was deeply touched by those, near and far, who sought to provide aid to my family and me during this difficult period.

In New York, people dropped their opaque veneer and pitched in as they always do when circumstances require it. Businesses with power opened their doors and did what they could to provide warmth, shelter, support and connectivity.

To better understand what your business must do during a crisis, examine a local restaurant near a New York hospital. The eatery is a small family owned business frequented by local police, doctors, nurses and utility workers where the staff knows the regulars on a first name basis.

When I asked if they were remaining open during Sandy, Jennifer, my waitress replied, “We’ll be open until midnight (their usual closing time). We need to be here because our customers count on us.” Jennifer served more than good Italian food on a bleak night. She was empathetic and supportive unlike the PR folks whose Teflon emails filled my inbox with their pitches without regard for the fact that half of my city was flooded and without power.

Here are ten social media business lessons you can learn from Hurricane Sandy.

  1. Monitor the social media landscape. Keep your ear to the ground to know what your prospects, customers, their social media colleagues and the public are saying about you, your offering, close substitutes and competitors. While much of the conversation may just be talk, it’s critical to know which comments and conversations require a response from your organization.
  2. Brainstorm potential problem and/or crisis scenarios. Include the breath of possibilities and how you should respond to each one. Don’t assume because an event hasn’t happened yet, it can’t or won’t happen. Consider the elements your business requires to stay open and operate effectively. This includes power, water, phones, fuel, connectivity, supplies and employees.
  3. Develop plans for crisis onset, duration and aftermath. Detail the processes you want employees to follow should the worse scenario come to pass. The goal of this exercise is to ensure every potential outcome is thought through and outlined so employees know what to do without thinking about it.
  4. Incorporate social media engagement and/or response into existing business continuance plans where appropriate. Social media should no longer be something outside of your normal business plans and processes. Integrate social media into your business where it makes sense such as marketing, communications, customer service, sales and other customer facing positions. Determine who will manage the engagement and provide contingency plans if that person is in an affected area.
  5. Communicate with all of your business constituencies. Include employees, customers, suppliers, distributors and the public. Talk to them and listen to them before, during and after the crisis. Build redundancies into your communications in case there are difficulties getting through. Use social media, email and mobile.
  6. Create a set of guidelines regarding social media behavior and response. This can be an extension of your regular business social media guidelines.
  7. Determine your chain of command and related contacts for the crisis. This may not be the same people as your on-going business. Include key people in customer facing positions and their backups with content information including personal mobile phone numbers. Keep this list up-to-date since the likelihood is an issue will arise at night, over the weekend or during a holiday. (Here’s how PR should respond.)
  8. Build a comprehensive checklist to ensure you haven’t forgotten anything when responding to the crisis. Ensure that the members of your team know about the plan.
  9. Review plans regularly to build your response habit. Practice going through the steps so those involved can react without thinking.
  10. Document and archive everything related to the crisis to be better prepared in the future. After a crisis, go through and assess your organization’s effectiveness. To this end, gather appropriate stories.

To effectively weather a social media storm, think about the unthinkable and have plans in place before disaster hits because, as Hurricane Sandy has taught us, a major storm whether it’s natural or just social media based can bring down many critical services.

What did you learn from Hurricane Sandy that can help improve your business’ social media effectiveness during a crisis?

Happy marketing,
Heidi Cohen

Note: During to our post storm recovery, we will make every effort to maintain our publishing schedule but may be hampered.

This column is dedicated to Larry, Delia, Henry and Alison. Thank you for all of your support during the storm.

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