In a crisis situation as in life, the many tentacles of social media may be annoying distractions, but if you plan well and engage properly, social media may prove to be a valuable resource to protect legal and reputational damage. Putting in the work now will reap rewards should the worst case scenario ever happen.
Taking social media beyond an information service
Social media and the incredible rise in smartphone use has been a true phenomenon of the 21st Century. In the transport industry in particular, these two things together have revolutionised the way passengers and operators communicate with each other. Twitter is the first port of call for many disaffected and disillusioned commuters checking for – and reporting – delays. Although this may have started as a peer to peer network, there has been a move to share this information with operators as a ‘critical friend’. Some organisations have developed a social communications strategy that gives it a unique voice, personality and relationship with customers. Engaging in a dialogue rather than issuing “leaves on the line” explanations has been mastered by some, but this is an art more than a science. It has taken customer service one step further and improved, in part, users’ confidence and trust in operators.
‘Trust’ was a frequently recurring word in the 2012 report by Passenger Focus which established ‘How passengers want social media during disruption’. At a time of disruption, social media must be controlled, moderated and managed so far as possible. At a time of crisis this is even more important. Instant accessibility afforded by smartphones means that information, photographs and personal accounts of tragedy, carnage and perceived fault can be spread around the world in a moment.
Passengers, friends, families and interested parties will seek information quickly and the many social media platforms now available will most likely be where news is first reported. The window of opportunity once afforded by traditional news and communication channels no longer exists and it is important that, rather than simply filling a vacuum with commentary, guesswork or time-buying statements, considered honesty is presented and the best way to proceed. Saying nothing is no longer an option.
The business risks of social media use
It is not only the videos, images and verbal accounts of tragedy that can be damaging. Following the Spanish train crash in July 2013, which killed 79 people, it wasn’t the accounts of social media users at the scene that provided insight into what had happened, but the Facebook account of the train’s conductor, Jose Garzon. Press reports identified on the private account images of a train’s speedometer showing twice the speed limit in some areas and comments such as “I am at the limit and i can’t go any faster or they’ll fine me!” Not only did these comments hit the media, they will have ultimately informed the prosecution of Mr Garzon and impacted on the culpability of his employer.
Action taken by employees on social media can cause serious damage to the brand of the organisation and its reputation, both on and off-line. Inappropriate photos, comments and the opportunity to air personal concerns and gripes with ‘friends’ can sometimes feel overwhelming. But they are a permanent and all too public record directly linked to the individual and, potentially, to the employer. Having in place strong policies to regulate social media use, including private and personal accounts, together with practical procedures to monitor, moderate and enforce the policies can be crucial to limiting damage and in some cases liability. Policies should be carefully tailored not only to the business, but to each level of employee. It is not sufficient to adopt a one size fits all approach when there is little shared between the wide variety of roles undertaken.
Making the rules up
Although there is no hard and fast legislation specifically designed to address the risks posed by social media, nor any sector wide regulation, it is surely only a matter of time until that changes. Organisations who ignore the implicit demands of social media and fail to address misuse now will find it more difficult to apply regulation when, not if, it is introduced.
By way of example, one of the earliest social media cases involved airline crew who created a private chat room on Facebook to discuss their customers and their employer. Sharing comments about the safety records of certain aeroplanes and critical comments about passengers led to them being dismissed. Not only did this send a strong message to other employees, it may also have prevented retrospective criticism of the airline particularly where safety fears are expressed.
In times of crisis, planning ahead, carefully constructing and implementing workable and bespoke policies and procedures can produce positive results. These will not only limit liability, but also reduce the risk of reputational damage. At all times, before action is taken, it is important to not only react promptly, but to react only when facts have been established and confirmed, when you are in control and able to offer positive advice, guidance and updates. Having a trusted network of employees and customers will only assist you in achieving this.
Many operators are already reaping the benefits of social media and working hard to grow relationships and build trust. Transport for London has recognised the importance of targeted information by introducing separate Twitter accounts for each line, allowing passengers to access the information they want rather than search through thousands of tweets for what they are looking for. Taking this to the next stage and developing strategies in anticipation of crisis situations will only prepare you for what we all hope will never come, but know that it inevitably will.
This article first appeared in Transport Times magazine and is reproduced here with kind permission