As you probably know, I’ve been having an interesting debate with a fellow crisis professional on whether or not to shut social media down in a crisis. If you’ve been following along, then you know that my take is that there is more to gain in leveraging social media to communicate with your audiences in a crisis, than there is to gain from closing the accounts down.
This discussion was first started because of the Ebola crisis and the fact that the Emory University Hospital was being attacked on Facebook because people were scared and against the fact that two missionary doctors who contracted the awful disease were being brought back to the U.S. to be treated at Emory.
Read: Analyzing the CDC’s Crisis Communication In U.S. Ebola Outbreak
I made this point in Shel Holtz’s FIR podcast, where I had the opportunity to bring this debate to life, but I also wanted to address it here for different reasons.
Now, let me begin by saying that the Ebola crisis is greater than this one Facebook page, as is Emory University Hospital’s efforts and response to the backlash. However, I’m choosing to look at this one response strategy because 1) it was the one that started this debate in the first place, and 2) because I think the Hospital did a phenomenal job with their Facebook messaging and want to focus on that for this post.
The issue that Emory had to deal with on Facebook
The issue was a result of fear and a lack of comprehension. So many people were upset with the fact that the missionary doctors were being brought back to the U.S. for two reasons:
- They were scared that the virus would spread in the U.S.; and
- They were lacking knowledge on the facts of both the virus and the hospital’s mission and plan of action.
This, as you can imagine, resulted in a downpour of verbal attacks and negative discussions on the Hospital’s Facebook page.
How Emory chose to deal with this issue
Facebook can be loud. That noise can be intimidating and, yes, can take you off-message if you let it. But what I see here, and what Emory obviously saw as well, was the biggest underlying issue: there was a lack of true comprehension around this disease and the hospital’s reasoning for caring for the two American doctors.
Listen: TCIP #020 – Managing The Ebola Crisis With Bill Boyd
As we know, in a crisis it’s very easy to lose your narrative to rumors, speculation and to have your social media channels hijacked. When this happens, you need to focus on the right messaging and work hard to correct the rumors, educate the public and regain control of the story. Sure, you can choose to close down social media, which in this case would have been the Hospital’s Facebook page; but that won’t silence the noise or correct the rumors. In fact, that would have only further worsened the situation for the hospital, by:
- Losing even more control of the story and missing out on the underlying opportunities.
- Further angering people because they would have viewed this as an attempt to “shut them up” (which never works, by the way).
- Having these same people now move to other channels, channels that Emory would have had no control over and may not even have known about, to continue to bash the hospital and further spread untruths about the situation.
Instead of closing pages, I always suggest to focus on the goals and to communicate the appropriate messages to the appropriate audiences. In Emory’s case, one important audience group was the general public. Concerned citizens of the U.S. had a right to voice their concern and understand what was going on and why. When you look at the initial comments and attacks posted to Emory’s Facebook page, you realize that there was a big disconnect in what they thought (and what they thought resulted in their rightful fear) and what the truth was. Emory understood this and made it one of their missions to educate the general public (which, in my opinion, was their responsibility). This was the right decision and ended up working very well for the Hospital.
Monitoring and educating
By choosing to monitor their page, they were able to assess what the main concerns were and create responses that focused on education. For example, they created an FAQ video to address some of the top concerns and correct the misconceptions that were attached to them. Take a look at the video below, which was posted to their Facebook page:
Apart from this, they also created editorials and other educational materials to help their community truly understand their mission and the caution they were rightfully taking. This was the hidden opportunity within this particular issue. Had they closed their Facebook page, they never would have positioned themselves as the caring and dedicated leaders that they needed to emerge as.
Listen: TCIP #012 – The Leader’s Role in Crisis Management with Jane Jordan-Meier
The result of this approach
Today, both infected doctors have been discharged from the hospital with a said 100% recovery. On top of this, more people now understand the truth about Ebola (how it spreads, whether or not it was ever at high risk of creating a pandemic here in North America, etc.). I would like to congratulate Emory University Hospital for their selfless compassion and dedication, as well as their excellent use of Facebook to handle this important issue.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the power of harnessing social media for crisis communication.
Author of Crisis Ready: Building an Invincible Brand in an Uncertain World, Melissa Agnes is a leading authority on crisis preparedness, reputation management, and brand protection. Agnes is a coveted keynote speaker, commentator, and advisor to some of today’s leading organizations faced with the greatest risks. Learn more about Melissa and her work here.
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