Crisis communications and social media

In April this year, I attended the Devon and Cornwall Social Media Conference hosted by Devon and Cornwall Police. As part of the day we took part in an excellent mock crisis event run by Daisy Griffith. This involved each team (made up of representatives from local authorities, emergency services and other public sector partners) providing the social media communications for an emergency.

Now in a previous blog post I’ve discussed the importance of collaboration of partners during a crisis. This event was a great opportunity for us to put those lessons into practise whilst getting a better insight into how each organisation views social media and to what extent they engage with it.

The exercise got me thinking about an our own social media activity during a crisis. Over the last few years we have had to respond to several extreme weather events (Heavy snow, rain and flooding) and this has enabled us to fine tune our approach and understand what our role in this channel is. I suppose putting it simply it’s about sharing our key messages into popular hashtags and retweeting partner messages to ensure they have the broadest possible reach.

I realised that we’re pretty comfortable with managing our messages during a crisis but what happens when we have to deal with some of the behaviour that can occur in the social channel, such as:

  • Hashtags – what tags do we use? How do we keep track of the popular tags? Should we switch or stay consistent?.
  • Reporting – How do we deal with people reporting incidents/problems via social media? How do we verify the validity of these reports? Do we share public photos or video?
  • Engagement – How do we manage the increased volume of engagement from the public or media, some of which could be personal, sensitive or abusive?
  • Politics – How do we manage interactions from local councillors or our own councillors?

These are important issues that I have a view on but don’t necessarily have all the answers to, so I decided to recreate the crisis exercise internally and bring together the appropriate people and their expertise to address these issues and at least create a discussion about some possible answers.

The exercise

The exercise I took part in focused on all emergency services and public sector partners, I wanted to create a similar event but with more focus on events involving a local authority. I thought this would provide greater opportunities for learning as people would be able to recognise how events related to their role in the council.

It was tempting to make the crisis about a meteorite strike or zombie apocalypse but as mentioned above I wanted people to be able to relate to the event and pull on their own expertise and unless like me you’ve been watching back to back episodes of ‘The Walking Dead’ your expertise in dealing with this crisis will be limited, likewise with the meteorite strike and the film ‘Deep Impact’.

So my chosen crisis was a severe weather event involving heavy rains, high winds and flooding across the county.

The crisis would be played out over approximately 1 ½ hours broken down into a series of 10 phases.

Each phase would include 5 minutes of activity and then 5 minutes of feedback. For each round the teams would be presented with a piece of paper that represented confirmed events or information which the teams could choose to share or not.

Also during the activity phase a projector displayed a series of fabricated tweets designed to replicate genuine tweets. Each tweet was created from a Photoshop template. I was intending on using a useful tool called however, shortly before I started planning this exercise the service stopped working. It’s worth keeping an eye on as it would be a good time saver for future events.

The fake tweets were set to update every minute. I hoped the minute would give just enough time for people to register the tweet is there but short enough to create a sense of pressure when discussing what should be done about it.

These tweets ranged from the straightforward such as simple requests for information

Crisis tweet

to more complicated reports of incidents and cries for help.


The tweets were designed to provide a mix of conventional messages with some more slightly unusual ones. Sometimes the tweets would coincide with the confirmed messages, preempt and report incidents or contradict official reports.

The intention being to create confusion and therefore delay possible responses, which with the time limitations generate an element of realistic pressure for people taking part.

After each round a group would be asked to feedback on the action they had taken and their reasons for what they had done. The other groups are then invited to comment if they made different choices.

At the end of the exercise a final debrief and question session took place where people could discuss their decisions and whether in hindsight they would have acted differently.


Did the day work?

As a day and an exercise it worked, it achieved what I hoped it would, raising awareness and generating discussion.

What would I have done differently?

I think the exercise could have been slightly shorter and perhaps the tweets could have been more challenging. I was concerned that the tweets might have been seen as too unrealistic and therefore people would not engage with the exercise. Actually, I think I could have gotten away with being more extreme.

I’d like to have included more interactivity, whether that was through people simply writing their tweets onto post-it notes and sticking them on a flipchart or using a service like Poll Everywhere to display their messages live on a screen. Actually having to compose a tweet with character limits, hashtags and links takes a lot longer than simply saying you would send it. I think this would’ve added a greater sense of pressure and immersion.

Lessons learned

At various points in the exercise, tweets from some of our councillors were displayed (remember they’re fabricated tweets) on the screen. Some of which were from councillors of the controlling party and ranged from simple RTs to unhelpful and potentially dangerous. This raised some important questions in the room about how we engage with our councillors (from all parties) on social media, such as:

  • Should we be monitoring what our councillors are saying in this channel?
  • How do we engage with our councillors? Do we retweet messages?
  • Should we get involved if messages are inaccurate or inappropriate?
  • Should we be offering regular surgeries to councillors wanting to use social media and other digital tools?

Further discussion is needed around these issues, but in the short term offering surgeries to our councillors is the best way to raise awareness about social media it’s uses and risks.

For me, the most important parts of the day were the conversations that took place between rounds. Getting people together discussing how they would manage the more challenging tweets was just what I was hoping for and it was really interesting to hear the opinions from the different service areas present. There were some clear differences in opinion of how we should communicate through Twitter. For example, our highways operation team were perhaps naturally more cautious as they were reluctant to retweet any public messages even when they were confirmed to be accurate – perhaps this was to ensure or minimise any risk to the service, whereas members of the communications team considered these messages as an opportunity and as a means to extend the reach of important or key public messages.

Finally, as time consuming as it was, the process of having an “exercise” is valuable and we should look to repeat it to ensure that we develop our thinking and approaches. I think inviting more agencies to take part and working with members of the Local Resilience Forum to help shape the exercise would really add value and improve the experience.

One thought on “Crisis communications and social media

  1. Pingback: Crisis communications and social media – Re:work Digital | Public Sector Blogs

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