A Content Strategy Approach to Online Crisis Communications (Part Two)

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Are you prepared to communicate effectively during a crisis?

Last week, we began discussing how to approach crisis communications planning from a content strategy mindset, ensuring that we will be able to effectively publish our most “useful, usable content” when it is needed most. I outlined core communications principles that apply during a crisis and addressed how to plan roles and resources and how to structure messaging. Today, let’s dig deeper into our channels and how to manage them during a crisis.

Channels and Audience

We have tons of channels—internal email, external email, social media, websites, text messaging, digital signage, and so on—and while we may have figured out how to use them all in concert when it comes to promoting campus events, disseminating crisis information is a different beast.

Depending on when a crisis occurs, we have to pay extra attention to the context in which the content is being consumed.

A few months ago, Rick wrote about the need to plan for content delivery in context. Context is one of the most important things to consider in crisis communications. We can’t choose the time of day that a crisis strikes, and we can’t just send an email and hope people will get it when they’ll get it. We have to more closely consider push channels versus pull channels. Depending on when a crisis occurs—Is it nighttime? Are people not at their computers? Is the power out?—we have to pay extra attention to the context in which the content is being consumed.

Because of the variables in play with multiple audiences and infinite contexts, we often blast messages using multiplatform alert solutions. However, while they are powerful, these services pose a challenge for the content we share during a crisis. For instance, how do you craft a message that will be sent via text message (with a 160-character limit), email (unlimited character limit) and voice mail (via automatic transcription of the written message)? Our scripts should support the nature of our delivery channels, be it a multiplatform alert solution or otherwise.

The Role of Social Media

Then there are the channels your alerting system likely does not interface with—most specifically, social media. The social media landscape was vastly different in 2007 than it is now. Have our crisis plans caught up?

You may have a variety of social media accounts. What roles do these respective accounts play during a crisis?

You may have a variety of social media accounts—say, Twitter accounts for the main university the news office and the Department of Public Safety, with a Facebook page for the police department, to boot. Then there’s your School of Performing Arts that happens to have an audience of 10,000 followers. What roles do these respective accounts play during a crisis? It is important to have a plan in place that outlines:

  1. Which of our core social media channels will be the hub of crisis communications? What is the role of Twitter, versus Facebook, versus your website? And do relevant crisis communicators have access to these channels?
  2. Will the other core channels remain silent? Will they post a pre-determined message directing followers to the chosen account for crisis updates?
  3. What is the policy for how all staff-run campus-wide social media accounts should behave during a crisis? This is important because, for example, if the Math Department posts information, however inaccurate, about an ongoing crisis, the external community (including media, family and community members) may accept that as an official university statement. It’s coming from an official university department, after all. (In a recent episode of Higher Ed Live focused on crisis communications, Seth Odell mentioned that Case Western Reserve University requires all campus social media managers to share their passwords so accounts can be controlled in a crisis. That seems like a bit much, to me. If you have a campus social media working group, perhaps communicating a policy of radio silence, or of only retweeting of the core channel sharing crisis info, may suffice.)
  4. Who will be monitoring Facebook wall posts, blog search, Twitter search and comments to see how people are reacting to the crisis and what (mis)information is being shared, and will they respond if appropriate? It’s worth noting that Facebook walls often become places of gathering and ad hoc information clearing houses in times of crisis.


Governance is arguably the least sexy part of content strategy, but also likely the most important. The same goes for our crisis communications. A big part of governance, in this respect, is training. Since we (thankfully) don’t use our crisis plans very often, the particulars of how to execute them (ranging from logins to style) can go rusty. Scheduled walkthroughs, drills, tests and cross-training are vital to the success of our plans when we need them most. Do we account for staff turnover and train new staff soon upon their arrival?

Planning for a crisis poses new technical questions not normally part of our daily content concerns, but which can potentially impact the effectiveness of our crisis messaging.

We also need to regularly revisit which channels are part of our plan, as well as update any logins, passwords or documentation. Have we launched a digital signage network since our last crisis walkthrough? How does that factor in to our plan? Also, are our scripts still valid? Has any key information changed?

Another important governance consideration is our infrastructure. Planning for a crisis poses new technical questions not normally part of our daily content concerns, but which can potentially impact the effectiveness of our crisis messaging. Do we know how much traffic our servers can handle? What if our servers go down? Do we have backup power, or an off-site host? Not knowing the answers to these questions is too much of a risk.

Be Prepared

The value of planning comes from knowing you have a net when the wire snaps or your balance shifts. As Colleen Brennan-Barry stated in her Penn State presentation: “Strategy is the number one tool. Even if all else breaks down, this should be able to guide you.”

Buying a multiplatform alert tool is not enough. Simply knowing you have Twitter around in case a crisis hits is not enough. Having skilled communicators on staff but failing to organize them into an informed and prepared crisis response team is not enough. In all aspects of our work, we need a strategy that puts our tools to good use. And there is no better use than ensuring the health and safety of our community.

Be sure to read part one of this two-part series in case you missed it the first time.

Photo by webhostingreview / Flickr Creative Commons

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About Georgy Cohen

Georgy Cohen is associate creative director, content strategy, at OHO Interactive in Cambridge, Mass.. Prior to OHO, she worked with a range of higher ed institutions, including stints at Tufts University and Suffolk University and as an independent consultant, on content strategy and digital communication initiatives. Keep going »

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