The City of Elliot Lake's social media #FAIL

In June of 2012, if you visited the City of Elliot Lake's website, you would have seen an icon for the community's Facebook page. Today, that icon - and the Facebook page it led to - are gone. 

The page was removed in the wake of the now infamous roof collapse at the city's Algo Centre mall. Two people were killed and 20 others were hurt when the mall's roof crashed into the shopping centre on Saturday, June 23. An official inquiry is expected to begin looking into the collapse in mid-August. Among other things, the inquiry will examine the controversial emergency management response, which came under intense scrutiny because of perceived delays and miscommunications.

So what can possibly shake an organization's leadership to the point where they decide to delete their official Facebook page? Without having any specific knowledge of the decision-making process in Elliot Lake, I would suggest there are three main reasons why an organization might pull the plug on their social media platforms:

1) Fear of lawsuits,

2) Concerns that people will say bad things about us, and

3) Not knowing what to say. 

1. Fear of lawsuits

To anyone who's been in the communications industry for any length of time, this won't come as a surprise. In times of crisis, lawyers can tend to adopt a bunker mentality, wanting to take control over the communications function. They'll pressure leadership to water down the key messages. They'll look to add disclaimers and other C.Y.A.-type language around press releases. And if they even suspect that you're considering using phrases such as, "We're sorry", they'll go absolutely apoplectic.

When Maple Leaf Foods was hit with a listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 people in 2008, the company hired Fleishman-Hillard to handle crisis communications. FH got it. They decided not to listen to the lawyers. Their actions may have actually saved the company.

One of CEO Michael McCain's main messages throughout the crisis was, "Lesson number one is focus on doing what's right for your customers and consumers and don't focus so much on the accountants and the lawyers." What he was really saying was what consumers needed to hear, namely: "It doesn't matter what the cost. We're going to do the right thing." The company quickly uploaded the CEO's apology video on YouTube - making it one of the first major companies to use this 'new' video sharing service in such a high-profile crisis situation.

Today, for the most part, the company's reputation is restored. Were there lawsuits? Yes. The company settled $27 million in class action lawsuits. But if they had handled the crisis poorly in the media, much more of their $5 billion-plus annual revenue could have been put at risk.

If an organization does something wrong, it can be sued. That's just a fact of life. But in today's ultra-connected world, there's no excuse for an organization burying its head in the sand during a crisis. More than ever before, the public is demanding transparency. And if you won't provide the facts, with a few swipes and clicks, they can get their information elsewhere.

An organization deleting its Facebook page could be perceived as an attempt to control the story. But what Elliot Lake's community leaders would have realized shortly thereafter is that they had no control over residents who were uploading photos on their personal Facebook pages or proactively going to the media with pictures of cracks, leaks and other alleged problems with the mall's structural integrity prior to the collapse.

Deleting their Facebook page didn't make the story go away. It only took away the city's opportunity to frame the story and to speak directly to residents and other interested parties. 

2. Concerns that people will say bad things about us

This is one of the biggest hurdles when trying to convince interested but skeptical people about the value of social media.

"What happens if people say something bad about us?"

Guess what? They may already be saying those negative things about you. But they're saying them on their personal Facebook or Twitter pages. Or at the local Tim Horton's. Or at a barbecue, the grocery store, over the backyard fence. The only difference is that when it's not taking place on social media, you don't know about it and there's nothing you can do to respond.

What many decision-makers today are failing to fully grasp is that the days of being able to control the story are over.

Not 'coming to an end'. Over.

As the world saw with the Arab Spring, these social media tools have helped oppressed populations to overthrow dictators who were in power for 30 or 40 years. If you think this cultural shift won't have any kind of impact on your organization, you're kidding yourself. 

So when a crisis hits, if you're not right there, in the thick of the action, engaging, informing and responding via social media, you've already lost. The airplane, filled with all of your customers, residents and other stakeholders has taken off and is flying to its destination at 35,000 feet. They're leaning their seats back and enjoying a little bag of pretzels while saying who-knows-what about your organization. And those leaders? The ones ignoring social media? They're still sitting in the stall back at the airport restroom with their pants around their ankles. 

3. Not knowing what to say

I hear this from very smart people every week. "We're interested in social media, but what are we going to say?"

Whether you're selling a product, trying to increase brand awareness or managing a crisis, it's not about what you're saying. It's about listening to your constituents and engaging. To use our airplane analogy, just make sure you don't miss the flight!

Monitor your Facebook page. Use Twitter's powerful search capabilities. See what people are saying about you. Respond to them. Take the heat. Take responsibility and tell them what you're doing to fix the situation. Or if you're still too scared of your lawyers, at the very least use these tools to acknowledge peoples' concerns and provide them with basic information updates.

By being part of the conversation, you can at least influence how your key stakeholders feel about your organization and its response, which can have profound long-term implications for your reputation.

I actually spent three-and-a-half months doing media relations work in the Town of Walkerton during the infamous E. coli crisis in 2000, which killed seven people and made several thousand sick. Tools like Twitter and Facebook would have been absolutely invaluable back then. Imagine being able to send out a tweet or status update telling residents about the timing and location of an important town meeting. Or being able to upload a video of that meeting to YouTube so that sick and elderly people who were unable to leave their homes could view it. Being able to let residents know with one click which streets were being disinfected on which days of the week. Or when and where they could pick up safe, clean bottled water for their children to drink.

But we didn't have social media back then. So what did we do?

We relied heavily on the area radio stations (which were amazing, by the way) to broadcast public service announcements. But the second most powerful communication tool we had back then was word of mouth. Like, with your actual mouth. We put flyers in peoples' mailboxes and gave verbal updates to people in the streets and let the small-town grapevine carry the message from person to person.

It was the year 2000 and the best communications methods at our disposal were just marginally better than a guy ringing a bell in the town square.

Fast-forward to 2012. It's hard to believe that an organization could have access to amazing and cost-effective communications tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube and then pull the plug on them in their greatest hour of need.

The bottom line

Contrary to what the Old Spice guy would have you believe, social media isn't a 'campaign'. It's a never-ending dialogue. There's a learning curve to social media. It takes time to cultivate your voice. To build trust. But when it's done correctly, the potential upside is huge.

According to Ipsos Reid, 50% of all Canadians and 60% of online Canadians have a social networking profile. And social networking is no longer the exclusive domain of kids. Sixty-two per cent of those aged 35 to 54 have social networking profiles and a significant portion (43%) of those 55 years and older have one as well1.

Your audience is already there. Their numbers will only continue to grow. And if you fail to embrace these new communication tools (or delete your social media presence when the sh*t hits the fan), the conversation will continue to take place without you. In most cases, it makes sense to get experts to help along the way, since you'll need to establish systems, identify online social media management tools and navigate potential compliance and legal issues as you build your social media presence. The payoff, however, is significant, as social media can give you a powerful, efficient and instantaneous platform for developing truly meaningful relationships with your stakeholders for years to come.

1Canada's love affair with online social networking continues, Ipsos Reid, July 14, 2011

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