Where there’s smoke, there’s social media

Crisis communications is one of the easiest areas to study and gain an appreciation for tangible social media ROI. And while we can never fully prepare for a natural disaster or acts of God, the advances in digital media can help accelerate the recovery. They can also help change the structure and procedures of previously traditional and parochial communications departments, as the State Government of Victoria in Australia discovered when it was subjected to some of the worst bushfires ever seen last year. In fact, the bushfires were the worst natural disaster in Australia’s history. And the way the communications team responded has been used as the blueprint by many state departments for their response plan.

Darren Whitelaw, general manager corporate communications at the State Government of Victoria, spearheaded that response. After pulling the relatively small team into a meeting and assessing the situation, he soon saw the online infrastructure simply couldn’t cope. So the team immediately started sending out official SMS text messages updating people in the region. But they also addressed the online overflow by developing a social networking widget to divert non-urgent online chatter about the bushfires and steady the stream of information. Most importantly, the responsiveness of the communications team spurred the public into donating toward assisting the aid work. Overall, AUS $369 million was raised.

The great strength of social and digital media often isn’t actually the ‘social’ aspect. In terms of ROI, the real strength lies in the almost instantaneous ability to share information. This is where these platforms can transform a process that traditionally would have taken hours into minutes and save lives in the process. Whitelaw and his staff learnt that during a crisis situation, people tend to search for specific information.

In this instance, one example was people searching for how they could donate to the fundraising appeal. They also learnt that you have to go where the people are (Facebook being the obvious first port of call) and have to understand mobile mediums. In the time since the bushfires, the State Government of Victoria has built an iPhone application that lets users know where fires are happening and what you can do to help. It has also started using Yammer, the internal social media platform, which has driven collaboration between departments, a typical weakness of the public sector of old. These are great examples of functional and useful outcomes as a result of the advances in the way we consume content.

Some ‘crisis’ situations don’t befit a proactive response because they can often be blown out of proportion by internal staff. In the case of a natural emergency, you simply can’t sit back and wait to be asked when you are the communications department for regional government body. “You must move fast to harness public support”, he says—and you shouldn’t underestimate the power of crowd sourcing.

Most of us are unlikely to have to deal with a natural disaster as part of our roles in marketing, advertising and communications. But there are still some very important lessons to learn as every brand needs a guideline for what to do when a crisis like a reputation attack occurs.

To hear about what else the State Government of Victoria has been up to in the social and digital media space, come and hear Whitelaw speak at Social Media Junction on 16 November. Register at www.socialmediajunction.co.nz

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