The earth turns, but we don’t feel it move…

Around us, the world of communications is shifting under our feet.  It can be hard to feel this happening, but our job, as communicators, is to ask ourselves what these shifts mean for our clients, their audiences and the broader communications landscape.

The #ABflood crisis

When severe thunderstorms and flooding hit the city of Calgary almost a week ago, residents could not imagine the turmoil that was about to unfold.  Within 24 hours, the entire downtown area of the city was engulfed in water. Trucks and cars were washed away in the torrent. And the Saddledome – home of the Calgary Flames and the Calgary Stampede – was submerged in more than 15 feet of water.

During the flood and in the weeks following, more than 100,000 residents have been displaced and nearly 300,000 tweets have captured the ongoing crisis using hashtags like #abflood and #yycflood.

#ABflood shows communications has changed forever

Recent crises prove that communications has changed. With new technologies and social media, crises spread faster, are more visual and participatory and traditional news sources no longer drive the stories.  At H+K, we’ve been working with our clients to help them adapt to this new world; to plan and prepare so they are ready when crises hit, affecting their businesses or communities.

The floods in Alberta, the bombings at the Boston Marathon and oil spills all show the shift in communications.  Here are the 10 ways we think communications has changed forever:

1. Twitter is the new network news.

When the flood hit Calgary and water rose in the streets, people didn’t look to TV or radio for their news – they checked Twitter.  It was where residents went to connect with others and look for news from government. Twitter broke the news, and journalists followed, helping people connect with government for help. Twitter is now where people go to find out what’s happening in the world around them.  Organizations need to recognize and adapt to this, using it as a principal vehicle to connect with and engage their audiences.

 2. Images are the new shared experiences.

Iconic photographs define events. In the past, these were often taken by news photographers, working ”in the trenches.” Now, smartphone cameras mean that everyday people are the photojournalists, taking pictures and sharing their experiences with others in real-time using social media.  That iconic photograph could be taken by anyone. The challenge for brands is to post photographs that tell their own side of the story, especially in a crisis – to co-create these images and help define the event in ways that resonate with people and protect their brands.

 3. All organizations are in the communications business.

In the past, police forces have thought of themselves as crime-fighting agencies. The flood demonstrated that they are really about public safety, and that a key part of this is rapid, personalized communications to help citizens make safe decisions. The @CalgaryPolice account responded to thousands of individual tweets during the crisis. And they received overwhelming support and thanks for their effort, strengthening core relationships and brand identity. It means that all organizations are communications beings that engage and influence the people who matter most to them.

4. There’s no time for approvals.

Responding to crises in real-time means crafting and delivering accurate and personalized responses in minutes. There simply isn’t time for lengthy approval processes; or, in fact, any delay at all.  Organizations need to recruit and train skilled social media communicators, conduct crisis simulations and then, most important, let communications and digital teams interact in real time when the real thing happens. Any communications missteps in the actual event can easily be corrected, but being non-responsive is worse.

5. Brands need to think like people, not companies.

In the heat of the moment, some companies find it hard to put their business objectives on hold. It’s tempting to align promotional campaigns with a crisis event, or respond to increased demand for their products (e.g. water, hotel rooms) with higher prices. But, these can ruin a brand’s hard-earned public reputation. Instead, brands need to think like people and put “doing the right thing” first. This could mean giving away products for free during a crisis, or paying staff to do volunteer or civic-support work. In the end, this helps both the brand and its community.

WestJet, for example, responded to #ABflood by extending its flexible change/cancellation rates to flood victims. People whose travel was affected by the crisis appreciated the “human reaction” and caring response.

6. Politicians – the bar has been lifted.

Elected officials understand that they need to reflect public reaction to a crisis, and appear in person at the scene wearing a bomber jacket. The ones who truly “get it” understand the need to be authentic and show true compassion. Their community expects direct interaction with them on social media.

During the flood, Calgarians heard Mayor Nenshi’s real voice, as he personally responded to hundreds of messages on Twitter. The bar is now higher for all elected officials on social media. If @nenshi can personally respond to hundreds of people while managing a crisis in his city at the same time, the public will now expect the same real-time, personal and authentic communications from other elected officials.

7. You have an army of volunteers waiting – how are you going to use them?

Whatever organization you are, you have an army of supporters and stakeholders who care about what you do. During a crisis, how are you going to mobilize them? And, what are you doing now to engage them so they’re ready? The Calgary Flames hockey team has a high social influence, with more than 160,000 followers on Twitter. During the flooding, the organization tweeted its supporters about ways to get involved and stay safe, thus mobilizing its “army of volunteers” for the greater good.

8. Used well, humour can have a role in crisis.

Crises are horrific and stressful experiences, both for those directly involved as well as those who experience it via social and traditional media. But humour can occasionally be appropriate to help people deal with the situation. There are risks, but the right humour doesn’t seem to minimize the event or experience: it can celebrate the human spirit and the will to rebuild and move on.

9. Dark sites are now more important than ever.

Even though people go to Twitter for information first, it is often to find links to accurate information posted by an organization. Social media is about sharing, but people still want a reliable source and will look to an organization’s web presence in a crisis. The City of Calgary was not prepared for a natural disaster of this scale and did not have a dark site ready to deploy. As a result, Calgary.ca was quickly overwhelmed and redirected visitors to a calgarycitynews.com blog site.  The blog created confusion with users not being granted access to Calgary’s main site and was not specifically dedicated to flood coverage. The time to plan and develop a dark site is now – not when you really need it.

10.  A crisis can give a brand an opportunity to reinvent itself.

Rather than “spinning” its way through a crisis, brands should see it as an opportunity to ask themselves questions that really matter – like, who are we? Who do we want to be? And, how do we want people to judge us? Though some brands often face negative press, a crisis provides unusual suspects with a platform to reinvent itself. ENMAX, for example – the utility provider for Calgarians – showed it could serve the public well on social media in a time of crisis. The brand, which typically attracts harsh criticism from customers online for long wait times and power outages, found a way to connect with the community during the flood.

(To stay informed about the aftermath/cleanup of the flood, follow #ABflood or #YYCflood on Twitter. To see trending tweets and images related to the flood, visit yycflood.ca, where H+K has aggregated hundreds of thousands of related tweets. To support flood victims, make a personal donation by visiting the Canadian Red Cross.)