Facebook: for when things go ‘glug’

Just three weeks ago this country’s only oil refinery, Refining NZ, accepted our long-standing recommendations around establishing a presence on social media. The rationale; to engage more effectively with the local community and to give the company a channel through which to communicate with the wider world in the unfortunate event that something goes bang.

Then yesterday, with uncanny timing, something did go bang. Well, not really bang. More like glug.

A visitor to the refinery, in the form of a 200-metre long, double-hulled oil tanker, starting leaking fuel into the pristine waters of Whangarei Harbour.

Refining NZ communication manager Greg McNeill and CEO Sjoerd Post were quick to embrace the new social media communication tools at their disposal and the result was pretty awesome. Here are some key decisions, thoughts and findings:

  • One of our first communication decisions was to abandon the traditional news releases or incident updates. Sjoerd and Greg decided that regular updates would be posted to the company’s Facebook page so that the general public could get as much information as the media, at the same time as the media.
  • This helped reduce the workload – always a good thing in any incident management situation. A simple post to Facebook covered a whole heap of bases.
  • Facebook was chosen over the company’s new Twitter feed (@Refining_NZ). Easier to post chunky bits of information, the ability to establish conversations relating directly to the content of specific posts, etc.

  • Media were advised by way of a two-sentence advisory distributed through traditional channels that a) a spill had occurred and b) all future updates would be made on the company’s Facebook page.
  • In most crisis communication scenarios little pieces of information come to light as the issue unfolds. This can create a communication problem if updates are issued, say, on the hour. At the end of the hour the information which came to light in minute 5 is already old news. By posting updates to Facebook we were able to drip-feed information as it was coming to light – automatically turning our Facebook feed into a preferred news source for both media and the general public alike.
  • Again, this reduced workload. Media were able to obtain information from the feed instead of having to call in to either Greg, Sjoerd or Due North to find out what the latest developments were.
  • As the incident wore on, new information became more widely spaced. We were careful to post updates simply saying that no new information was to hand so that people knew we hadn’t bugged out on them.
  • Any good crisis communication plan will have the CEO of the organisation (or a suitable senior spokesperson) fronting the communication exercise while the experts deal with the technical issues and with fixing the problem. Sjoerd used the Facebook feed to great effect. The posts adorned with his initials were actually made by him. Here we had a CEO sitting with his organisation’s Facebook feed in front of his face and – quite literally – fronting his organisation’s response to the issue. And responding directly to questions being raised by concerned residents of the area.  

  • We were able to see immediately what people were thinking, what their concerns were and what information we needed to supply that we hadn’t yet supplied. If someone asked a question on the feed that we knew the answer to, up went the answer pretty instantaneously. And if we didn’t know the answer, it became one of the questions that the incident controller was being fed by the communication team on a regular basis. So not only were we supplying information on a real-time basis – we were supplying relevant information.

There were many more things we learned yesterday, but these were some of the stand-outs. I’d be interested in your thoughts and any similar experiences you may have had around the use of social media as a crisis communication tool.

Finally – did it work? Yes, it did. Reactions and responses on our feed were predominantly supportive, with thanks from the most unexpected quarters for keeping people up to date with what was happening.

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