Communicating during a crisis – why great strategy and preparation is key

Since November 2019 Australia has been in the midst of a bushfire crisis. This has seen the loss of properties, wildlife, habitat and most unfortunately human life.

The bushfire crisis has shown the good and the bad side of social media. From the ABC and Rural Fire Services using social media to warn affected residents, the huge fundraising response to the organised spread of disinformation one thing is certain - the average Australian is following nationally important news through social channels more than ever before. 

As a Salesforce partner with a dedicated Marketing Cloud and Social Media practice, we’ve had a number of clients ask us if there are any suggestions on how to communicate during a crisis.

In this article, we will focus on how service orientated organisations can communicate with their audiences. 

What is the crisis?

This might sound obvious, but different events move and impact people through vastly different ways. For example a cyclone, although often huge in size, will affect a specific area, generally on the coastline, with high winds and rain. Also, when a cyclone hits, everyone is affected at approximately the same time. A bushfire on the other hand, can either affect a localised area or spread quickly to many areas. One town may be experiencing the core event, while the next town has only just started to see ember attacks. 

With the bushfire example, we’ve got two very different audiences that are experiencing the same event, but at different times and with different needs.

Communication types

The ultimate aim is to communicate information that is going to help the audience. This needs to be timely, accurate and relevant. Research on disaster communication by Meredith Niles shows us that there are three different types of communications generated by the audience during a disaster: 

  • Anticipatory
  • Core Event, and
  • Aftermath

Anticipatory period

For disasters that can be predicted and monitored, there is an anticipatory period. During this phase, we see the audience getting ready for the disaster. They may be asking questions on how to prepare their property, where an evacuation centre is located or how infrastructure will be affected.

We recommend having a social listening strategy in place during this phase that will pick up conversations about the area in context of the event. For example, if we want to monitor conversations about bushfires around the Bateman’s Bay area, we’ll look to listen for mentions about key infrastructure in the area, main roads and highways, tourist spots and any other key markers about that location.

Your content during the anticipatory phase should provide support to the audience, ensuring that they have the information that they need prior to the disaster impacting them. Ensuring that the content is current and correct is vital at this point. If you’re using a platform such as Social Studio to post out content, we’d recommend that the content is run through an approval process, so it can be checked and verified before being sent.

Other tips for communicating:

  • Use targeting to deliver relevant content to the right audience. 
  • Information changes quickly. Set that expectation and set up a blog to push the most up-to-date information out quickly.
  • Use the community to give you information, but, if possible, verify before publishing. 
  • Use Social Listening to gauge what the audience wants and create content to meet that need. Use these learnings for the next crisis. 

Core Event

Switching to emergency mode during the event. Ideally, all of the preparatory content would have been sent during the anticipatory phase. Use Social Listening to pick up concerns from people and have content ready, such as locations or evacuation centres, roads closures and weather forecasts.

During this phase, accuracy and currency are critical. Addressing content that is publishing mis-information or detracting is important to ensure that the audience is getting content that will help them.

Other tips for communicating during the Core Event:

  • These events are usually fluid and content that was accurate previously may be out of date soon after. Make sure you correct the record.
  • Know where you should refer people to if they ask for help.
  • Communications infrastructure may be down during the core event, limiting the ability of the audience to communicate with you.
  • Family and friends of affected people will use social networks to monitor situations - mis-information often comes from these sources when there is an information vacuum.

Aftermath

After the core event, we see the biggest spike in conversations. These conversations usually communicate welfare concerns, outline resources that are needed and communicate where help can be found. 

Our analysis has found that these communications from the community are mainly positive and civic minded, often sharing charitable donations and other grassroots support efforts. 

It is also during this period that we find detractors, almost always outside of the affected area, communicating their views on causes and responses to the disaster.

There is a clear need here to have a strategy in 

During this period, it’s important that the audience can access the information that they need. This could include road closures, where to find fuel, which shops are open and when communications will be open.

Although there may be impacts on mobile networks and internet access, it is still important to keep the audience as informed as possible. Friends and family outside of the disaster zone may be able to communicate your updates to them.

Conclusions

Disasters are varied, affecting people in many different ways, so communication strategies need to be agile enough to meet the needs of the audience. Ultimately, making sure your content is accurate and current, with any changes to circumstances communicated to the audience. Addressing mis-information, avoiding information vacuums and helping the community should be the focus.

Stay tuned for our next blog that explores what lessons can be learned and applied to the corporate world. 

Citations

Niles MT, Emery BF, Reagan AJ, Dodds PS, Danforth CM (2019) Social media usage patterns during natural hazards. PLoS ONE 14(2): e0210484. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210484

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2020-04-07T13:57:57+10:00