HR Technology: Emergency Channels

Employers tap social media tools to communicate during a crisis.

By Dave Zielinski Sep 1, 2013
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When a tornado ripped through the campus of Volunteer State Community College in Gallatin, Tenn., in 2006, it caused millions of dollars in damage to campus buildings and left the college community shaken. The disaster also forced Eric Melcher to rethink how the school communicates with its employees and students during crises.

A website had been designated as the primary tool for such communication, but in this case the tornado took out power and the website was down for several days. That left college students and staff in the dark about vital information such as the safety of co-workers or friends, when the campus buildings might reopen, and where classes were being moved.

Resolving not to be caught in that situation again, Melcher, coordinator of communications for the 8,600-student school with 900 employees, created a new strategy that relies on social media networks, a campus blog and other tools to communicate with key constituencies in crisis situations.

Facebook has proved to be a particularly valuable communication channel, Melcher says. "It can handle many more hits than most websites, and it’s a good forum for two-way information sharing and monitoring employees’ concerns in a crisis," he advises. "It also provides a sense of community where people can console each other, which is important in difficult times."

An easily accessed blog can address swiftly changing conditions in emergencies and provide authoritative information, Melcher believes. Volunteer State’s blog is hosted by Google rather than the college network, allowing it to handle higher volumes of traffic as demand peaks and allowing staff to post content remotely.

But what Melcher finds most valuable about the new system is the integration of multiple social media platforms. "Now, in a crisis situation I can send out one text from my phone or desktop computer that will automatically go to Twitter, Facebook, the blog and our website simultaneously," Melcher says. "You usually have very little time in emergencies, so the ability to send out one message instantly to all channels is invaluable."

New Role

Social media is best known in HR circles for its recruiting and employee engagement uses, but experts say it can also be a valuable tool for communicating with internal audiences during crises. As more employees use these channels as their go-to communication methods—and when internal avenues like company intranets, e-mail platforms or phone systems go down or become overburdened during emergencies—it can make sense for HR to partner with corporate communication colleagues in deploying Facebook, Twitter, blogs or other social tools to get crucial, sometimes lifesaving, information out to employees.

However, HR leaders who embrace this communication strategy should expect new challenges. During a crisis—be it a hurricane, a massive snowstorm, workplace violence or even a large staff downsizing—employees usually want to know what’s going on immediately. They may flood designated communication channels with questions or concerns, and they likely will expect frequent, regular updates.

Eric Schwartzman, founder and CEO of social media training company Comply Socially in Santa Monica, Calif., says social technologies have changed crisis communication strategies. Conventional wisdom once held that during a crisis "you wanted to be first in delivering critical information to employees or customers, you wanted to be part of every story out there, and you wanted to set the record straight about what is truly happening," Schwartzman says.

But with millions of people around the globe now sharing information instantly on social networks, the first two goals are unrealistic, he says, and the best way to achieve the third goal is through use of company-controlled networks. "The only way to set the record straight with any scale today is to use your own blog or website to communicate what’s fact and what’s rumor," he says. Schwartzman points to the communication strategy used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during Hurricane Sandy, which hit the U.S. East Coast in October 2012, as an example of how social media has influenced crisis communications. With so much information about the hurricane’s impact being shared so quickly across social media, a chief goal of FEMA officials became keeping the rumor mill in check. For instance, tweets were trending during the storm about sharks in subway systems. To counter such misinformation, Schwartzman says, FEMA created a "rumor control index" on its website to post critical information and updates for internal and external audiences.

FEMA also wanted to ensure that its employees had access to accurate, timely information so they could respond to questions they were receiving from friends, family and others, rather than having to rely on media reports or other sources. To that end, Schwartzman says, it helped that FEMA had trained its whole staff—not just executives or public relations managers—in crisis communication procedures well before the hurricane hit. That meant most staff knew where to find trusted information and what they could and couldn’t communicate to others during the crisis.

Internal Collaboration

Some experts believe that enterprise social collaboration networks—social media platforms located behind a company firewall—can be more-effective communication tools during a crisis than corporate e-mail systems.

Such a platform proved helpful for UBM, a global events, marketing and communication services business, when Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in 2010, spewing torrents of ash and disrupting European air travel for several days. Many UBM clients attending events were stranded by the eruption, recalls Tracy Maurer, UBM’s collaborative systems manager, who is based in Cleveland.

The company’s clients and employees began posting on Jive, a social software platform that functions as a form of corporate intranet, to reach out for help. "People were able to find out things like UBM would cover costs of their dry cleaning or laundry so they could wear fresh, clean clothes while they were stranded," Maurer says. "Someone from the U.K. who was stranded in New York used Jive to swap offices with a New York colleague whom he discovered was stuck in the U.K."

Because the company doesn’t have a single integrated e-mail platform, its 5,500 employees spread across 30 countries rely heavily on Jive to communicate across divisions. "When you make a post, people can see and comment about it then and there across the network," Maurer says. "You don’t have to forward e-mail, risk forgetting to include key people in that forwarding chain or have it sent into different e-mail threads that don’t connect. All the comments are grouped and stay in one place."

UBM chose not to hide Jive behind its corporate firewall, Maurer says, so employees can log in anywhere they have Web access. That came in handy during Hurricane Sandy. "The e-mail servers in our New York division went down for 24 hours, but because our Jive system was hosted elsewhere, our people could still communicate on it or post messages there," Maurer explains.

UBM employees affected by the hurricane used the platform to seek help with temporary shelter, meal assistance and car-pooling programs to get to work. Some discovered through Jive that the company had opened up offices for workers and their children, making available microwaves for hot meals, conference rooms for children’s activities and a company gym for showers.

"Employees from as far away as California were able to use the network to help make connections for shelter and transport for their colleagues working in New York," Maurer says.

New Ground Rules

One of the biggest changes when using social media to communicate with employees during a crisis is viewing the process as a two-way street, experts say. It’s no longer about "communicating to an audience but rather with an audience," says Melissa Agnes, founder and president of Montreal-based Melissa Agnes Crisis Management, which specializes in crisis prevention and response.

Soliciting feedback and monitoring Facebook or Twitter for employee concerns during a crisis are a vital part of the process, Agnes says. While some employers might be wary of turning social media into a "virtual complaints department," the positives gained from tracking employee questions or sentiments, nipping developing problems in the bud or correcting misinformation outweigh that concern, she says.

Melcher of Volunteer State says listening is key during crises. "It’s critical that you monitor your Facebook page in emergencies and assign someone to do that full time if possible, because there will be plenty of rumors that come up or employee concerns you may have overlooked," he emphasizes.

Kathy Corbalis, recently retired executive director of college relations at Atlantic Cape Community College in New Jersey, suggests viewing crisis communication via social media as a "dialogue rather than as shouting through a bullhorn." Corbalis has employed social networks as part of an integrated strategy to update college students and staff about emergencies that included an on-campus manhunt, a looming hurricane and a lockdown caused by gunfire.

"One of the lessons we learned during the lockdown is that although students were our primary audience, we couldn’t forget about communicating with our own staff," Corbalis says. "We had an escaped convict reported on campus, and we later realized some of our staff had been looking for more information during that situation from senior management than they were getting. Some weren’t as plugged into social media as our younger audience of students or weren’t signed up for the text alerts."

The HR department worked with the college relations department to help educate staff and students about use of the emergency communication system. "We work in partnership with other departments, and I think part of our success with the system is that each group brings its expertise to the table and supports each other," says Eileen Curristine, dean of human resources, public safety and compliance at Atlantic Cape. "We champion the fact that training students and employees in use of the communication system is crucial."

Corbalis also believes that a blog, prominently located on an organization’s home page, is one of the most powerful tools for communicating with audiences during emergencies. "It fits well with how information develops in small increments during a crisis and is a great way to provide updates," she says.

Agnes says the use of hashtags—now available on Facebook, Google Plus and Instagram as well as Twitter—also can aid in crisis communication efforts. Hashtags provide a way to group information on a particular topic, enabling users to easily find and share the information on social networks. This increases the odds that employees will see important news and updates.

Designating social media networks as communication channels is only one step in the larger crisis planning process, experts say. HR leaders should partner with internal colleagues to develop policies and training plans to prepare the organization in advance of an emergency event.

"The more you educate and train your employees, the more you can just trust them to be responsible adults in a crisis," Agnes says. "The better they understand their roles and where to go for information, the fewer things HR will have to worry about."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer and editor based in Minneapolis.

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