Lessons From Sandy: Social Media As A Lifeline

by , Nov 9, 2012, 8:53 AM
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My boss was supposed to write this article. But stranded in New York without power, water, or Internet, he called an audible and I’m subbing in. Given the events leading to this change of plan, I decided to write about something very timely, though not strictly on-topic for this column about marketing and health. This week, I’m taking the liberty of expanding the definitions of both. 

The best examples of “marketing” this week weren’t companies trying to capitalize on borrowed interest who shamelessly added #sandy to their promotional tweets (of note, American Apparel’s “Sandysale” for those “bored during the storm,” valid only in states in the crosshairs of the hurricane). Such tactics deservedly resulted in highly public backlash. 

But some marketers played it right. USAA and American Express sent communications - via any channel their customers might be using during blackout - to simply say “we’re here to help.” And then they were. Barclay’s waived late fees on credit cards. Duracell sent a Rapid Responder 4x4 to (coincidentally) Battery Park to help New Yorkers power up their devices. In turn, the company is being publicly rewarded with thousands of Facebook “likes,” impressive PR, and pledges of eternal devotion. There’s no better way to build brand loyalty than acting human and delivering on a promise in a time of need.

This week, “health” wasn’t synonymous with prescription drugs, devices, or medical procedures. It was about its most basic definition: protecting life. There is nothing more important in a crisis than the health and safety of our family and friends. With power and communication lines down across much of the Northeast Corridor, contact has been difficult if not impossible. 

But in this age of connectedness and technology, social media has assumed an essential role in such an event: crisis management. Social media served four critical roles when it came to the storm:

Preparation: Communicating the threat.

I first found out about the impending threat of Sandy not from the newspaper or The Weather Channel, but Facebook. Rumblings began early the previous week as the storm moved north. Facebook pages appeared dedicated to storm updates. Hashtags were established on Twitter. A meme was born, playing off the classic “Grease” character. The image was shared organically because it was funny; in doing so, it also helped prepare people. 

The Centers for Disease Control understands the power of social media for disaster preparedness. Knowing that citizens tend not to prepare for natural disasters, they instead created a zombie apocalypse preparedness toolkit. In the CDC’s view, any preparation is better than none at all. To date, more than 60,000 Facebook shares stand testament to the success of this approach.

Connection: Ensuring people remain in communication.

With cell towers overloaded and power out, people simply couldn’t get in touch, compounding panic. To help, the American Red Cross created a hurricane app that includes an “I’m Safe” feature. With the push of a single button, the app sends posts to all of a user’s social networks communicating this one vital piece of information to everyone, all at once.

When direct communication failed, social media filled the gap, evidenced by the hundreds of Facebook posts asking neighbors to check up on family members who were unreachable during the storm. 

Response: Triaging and aiding in real-time.

During the worst of the storm, social media kept people up to date and out of harm’s way, even as conditions changed moment-to-moment. Twitter donated promoted tweets to @RedCross and @FEMA, ensuring the maximum number of people received the most critical updates. These organizations were also able to track – in real time - areas that needed the most immediate assistance, simply by assessing the number and content of social media messages directly from the citizens being affected. Response would have been infinitely slower and less accurate without the aid of social media.

Recovery: Picking up the pieces in the aftermath.

After the storm, social media continues to prove its importance. We are only just beginning to assess the damage, often with the aid of crowdsourced images. Agencies can triage their recovery efforts by mining social media to discover where help is most needed. They’re using Facebook and Twitter to get the word out about safety, including boil alerts and emergency response vehicle locations.

And, of course, people are helping each other. Whether using Twitter to ask friends to check on property or using Facebook to send a plea for gasoline to keep a respirator running via generator (not to worry: he received some), social media is helping people get back on their feet.

In the aftermath of Sandy, there are certainly some marketing lessons to be learned. Really, crisis management is about protecting health and mitigating damage. During natural disasters, crisis management is about protecting the health of people and providing a lifeline. Following a corporate misstep, it’s about protecting the health of a company. And with serious product issues, it’s about protecting the health of a brand. The same basic social media roles apply for any type of crisis. Knowing this, companies can outline governance for steps they will take during each phase of crisis management ahead of time. So when disaster strikes, they’ll be ready.

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