- Image via Wikipedia
Just before Christmas, Eurostar, operator trains that run through the Chunnel, suffered a major breakdown stranding hundreds of people in the tunnel for hours and canceling service. Riders in the tunnel as well as those on either side of the English Channel tweeted and Facebooked their chagrin alongside their updates to family members and friends, while the company’s own official Twitter channel remained silent for most of the day.
The outcry from the technorati was instant and deafening: Eurostar ignored Twitter! Where was the communication from the company? They don’t care about us! As often happens, the public moved faster than the corporation. People expected the official digital channel of Eurostar to become a means for transmitting emergency information, and screamed when it didn’t happen.
This unfortunate incident, aside from highlighting the conflict between large bureaucratic agencies and realtime communication, puts the role of social media in crisis communications into stark relief. In this case, Eurostar’s social media was being directed by a third party engaged for a specific marketing campaign.
Some of the blame is being laid at the feet of the interactive agency (we are social), and regardless of the validity or fallaciousness of these criticisms about the agency itself it is folly to blast them for not adequately handling the situation. As outlined in a blog post on the agency’s site, Eurostar was advised to incorporate a realtime listening and responding element and chose to begin by limiting social media activity to the campaign in question. The client made a decision to proceed with a specific content plan, and the agency went above and beyond to help them in a crisis.
The issue here really is one of public safety. While Twitter has demonstrable value in breaking news and information to the public, when public safety is involved the wicket becomes sticky. If a plane crashed, would you rather receive a personal visit or phone call from a company representative notifying you of the death of a loved one, or read their name in a tweet about the incident? What if they weren’t dead but had not yet been located, and you’d relied on social media for your information?
These new digital channels are just that: new. Many–if not most–companies either fail to grasp the usefulness of them, or are unprepared to integrate them into the communications plans with the speed demanded by the public at large. Rather than rounding up the torches to go storm the castle, we can use this incident as a teachable moment. It can effectively illustrate the expectations the public has on companies, as well as the role of the digital agency tasked with handling online communication.
Corporations should heed the words of agencies who stress the need for crisis communication, customer feedback and response, and the opportunities to shine that these unfortunate events provide. Prepare yourself for the big play, because when the ball sails your way you can drop it or make the catch and be seen as the hero.