Why It Matters by Jon Silver.

Last week, Super-Frankenstorm Sandy descended on the northeastern U.S., causing widespread damage, halting transportation and testing the communication strategies of numerous organizations. As the recovery got its footing, we could already glean lessons on how to use digital communication channels effectively in extreme situations, and what never to do during an emergency.

1. Get Up and Running

Many digital news organizations needed to find alternative ways to communicate after the storm. The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and Gawker all went down after Internet service provider Datagram’s New York basement flooded. According to techcrunch360, The Huffington Post’s “writers and editors relied on Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter to post stories and information during the storm.” BuzzFeed, too, used the same social platforms to relay news, and quickly switched to a cloud server in what Wired claimed “may be the quickest cloud conversion in history.” Through at least five days after the storm, Gawker redirected its site to its Tumblr feed, in what the site joked was a Halloween costume. All three sites showed dedication to getting news out by any means available, and were transparent about how they did so. BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief candidly spoke to Wired about the tech issues the site faced, and what it did to get back online.

2. Adopt Community Thinking

Both The New York Times and Airbnb understood their services could significantly help those in need, and then made helping out their priority. The Times, which installed a paywall on March 28, 2011, dropped the gate for storm related coverage. The news organization proved to be a key nexus of information during and after the storm, with frequent transportation and power status updates.

Airbnb waived its fee for 20,000 listed locations in storm affected areas and encouraged its “entire community to help anyone who has been left stranded or in need because of the hurricane.”

3. Check Your Sources

The storm also facilitated a cautionary lesson as the rush to communicate occasionally fogged the need to do so accurately. As Sandy approached New York, an image of a massive storm perching above the Statue of Liberty went viral. Apparently, the user who posted it to Facebook received it as text from a friend, who also received it from a friend, as this BuzzFeed screenshot shows. When the image neared its 300,000th share, the user admitted it was unknowingly fake, adding that the situation was “funny, but awkward…” It was also misleading, potentially dangerous and unfortunately not uncommon as these other not-Sandy-viral-images proved.

4. Don’t Lie

This one should go without saying, but unfortunately it didn’t. Like screaming “fire” in a crowded theater, providing false updates during an emergency is wrong. This lesson was recently learned by hedge fund analyst and [former] congressional campaign consultant Shashank Tripathi. Under the pseudonym @ComfortablySmug, Tripathi authored a series of misleading tweets about the severity and impact of the storm, including that Con Ed cut all power in Manhattan (it didn’t) at that the New York Stock Exchange was flooded (it wasn’t). Some of his false reports were retweeted widely, and perhaps added to the misunderstandings that lingered following the storm. Forty-eight hours after the storm, Tripathi apologized via Twitter for his “irresponsible and inaccurate tweets” and for “any distress or harm they may have caused.” Within four hours, the apology had over 400 retweets. He has also resigned from his consultancy post.

The silver lining here, as BuzzFeed’s John Herrman points out, is that “Twitter is a Truth Machine,” and corrected many of Tripathi’s false reports.

5. Simply Communicate

The greatest digital communication lesson learned from Hurricane Sandy is that during a crisis, one should pay attention and simply relay what’s known. Digital tools—which include cameras, corporate websites and social channels—are incredibly powerful and are relied upon for information, especially during emergencies. Con Ed wisely used Twitter to update on operational statuses, provide contact information, dispute false statements and answer questions. The MTA used Twitter to distribute service maps and updates on upcoming service. The Interactive Advertising Bureau turned to Gmail when its servers went down, and Edelman set up a private Facebook group for employees to communicate.

The storm provided (and continues to provide) operational struggles to New York and its neighbors. If done well during and after an emergency, digital communications can help alleviate confusion and expedite recovery.

Jon Silver is the interim global editor of Edelman.com and global media manager. He managed @EdelmanPR and www.facebook.com/edelman—from New York—during and after Hurricane Sandy.

Photo credit: dsleeter_2000

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