The cameraphone and social media are crisis disruptors

Why it is time to get up to speed in planning a new crisis communications response

Image: Thinkstock


Britain’s most senior policeman gave an interview last July. His message could not have been clearer. The police and security services were preventing many terrorist attacks on Britain, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner said. But it was a question of “when, not if”.

The attack in March at Westminster Bridge caused sadness and anger in London. It did not create a huge sense of surprise, least of all for the emergency services, who had practised hard for such an incident.

The attack echoed a previous incident in Woolwich London in May 2013 in which a car was driven on the pavement, disabling a young soldier, Lee Rigby. He was then murdered by two terrorists using knives, in broad daylight, on a busy street, and in full view of the public.

In 2013, we began to realise that technology was changing human behaviour. As Fusilier Rigby was being horribly mutilated, members of the public stood and filmed it. In doing so, they put themselves in enormous danger before two armed and ruthless criminals. But the action was exactly what the terrorists wanted. They hoped that the global distribution of this shocking crime would inspire widespread fear. In this respect they were to fail.

A similar pattern was seen on Westminster Bridge. At Kenyon, we had already seen social media replacing traditional media as the place when serious news breaks. But since 2013, it broke with pictures and videos, not words.

This was a trend that alarmed civil authorities around the world, who have begun a public education programme on what to do if you witness a terrorist attack: “Run, Hide, Tell”. In other words, get as far away from the danger as quickly as possible. Do not stop to take pictures, or even to phone the police. Run. If you can’t run, hide (and if you can see the terrorists, they can see you) and only when you are safe, tell others and tell the authorities.

This change of behaviour is profound, international, and endemic. Whether in Nice, Berlin, Brussels or London, behaviour has profoundly changed. As communicators, we must understand this fundamental change and recognise the challenges it brings.

What causes someone to remain in a place of danger to film the scene? This is something which is being researched. It may be automatic behaviour, a phenomenon which causes you, when in a state of fear, to behave in the way you would in normal circumstances.

Some psychologists believe that horrified onlookers are using their device as a physical shield. When faced with something which is so beyond normal experience, you can become mentally paralysed for a short period, and you seek physical protection. Or, could it be that the act of filming itself makes you feel the incident isn’t real.

Whatever the cause, human behaviour is changing. People are now viewing the world through the lens of their cameraphone, not through their eyes.

As communicators, we must understand this fundamental change and recognise the challenges it brings.”

Through the lens

A picture from the United States on social media went viral recently. Members of the public were behind a barrier at a red carpet film premiere watching A-list stars such as Johnny Depp arrive. A photographer from the Boston Globe took a picture. Not of the stars, but of the onlookers. At first glance the picture did not seem remarkable. But on second look you realised you were looking at something remarkable. Everyone was viewing this unusual event with their cameras. Only one person, a lady at the front, was looking at it with her eyes. Her look was serene.

This is more powerful than it first seems. The public is viewing the world through the lens of their smartphones, not through their eyes Their view is narrow. If they didn’t photograph it, it didn’t happen.

Social media has changed crisis communications in many ways, but the development of the cameraphone is changing how the public view events. Consequently, it is changing how they view our clients. What you say in a crisis is extremely important. But pictures must now play a greater role in how we say it.

Similarly, social media has changed crisis communications in one important respect. I call it “the speed thing”.

Up to speed

2013 was a year in which images began to play a critical role in a crisis as a matter of routine. On July 6, 2013, Asiana flight 214 was making its final approach to San Francisco airport (SFO). As it approached the runway, the plane was flying too low and too slow for the final stage of the landing. The tail of Asiana 214 clipped the sea wall and broke off, sending two young girls in the last row flying out to their deaths. The aircraft flipped over, then slammed on to the runway and caught fire.

The news was broken in 60 seconds – with a picture – by a Google middle manager called Krista Seiden. She was at another gate waiting to depart, and saw the accident out of the window. She instinctively reached for her cellphone took a picture and tweeted it. “OMG”, she tweeted, “a plane just crashed at SFO on landing as I’m boarding my plane”. Ms Seiden, through her words and picture was, without knowing it, taking control of the narrative of the accident, not Asiana Airlines. They were not to issue their first statement for more than 62 minutes. Asiana, a highly reputable airline, were going by the old rules. The so-called “Golden Hour”.

Ms Seiden was followed by a range of customers and onlookers tweeting pictures and video. Some were seriously injured. But they took pictures and tweeted. It is the now the norm. Traditional media were simply reporting what they were seeing on social media. So much so, that CNN broadcast a segment  asking: is there a role for traditional media anymore in when social media can get there first? (Unsurprisingly, they decided there was).

After their initial statement at 62 minutes, Asiana did all of the communications that one would expect of this globally respected airline. But silence is communicating, and not usually the message you want to give. Writing in a Facebook discussion, Kristin Zern of The Association of Travel Marketing Executives said: “it suggests they (Asiana Airlines) don’t know what to say, or they don’t want to say it”.

Asiana’s reputation was damaged by the incident, but has recovered and the airline has changed its procedures.

So must we in face of the “speed thing”.

Change in plans

We now recommend to clients that your crisis plan should mandate a communication within 15 minutes of an incident where people have been killed or injured, or you have put people at serious risk. You should tell the public that you are aware of a possible incident and are on the case.

It’s clear from this challenging timetable, that writing and clearing a statement in 15 minutes is simply not possible.

We can make a list of everything that might happen in our organisation. And then we can write 15 and 30 minute statements, and get them cleared now. You’ll find that a small number of statements will cover a wide range of potential incidents. Just one senior figure in the company should be mandated to authorise the issue of the statement. For each additional authoriser, add 15 minutes’ delay to the issue time. More if in the middle of the night or a public holiday.

To many clients, this timetable seemed unachievable when we first raised it. It requires effort and rehearsal. But if you are to have any hope of regaining control of your company’s narrative, the “speed thing” really matters. We all know that once control of your narrative is lost, you face a lengthy – and expensive – battle.

It’s time to update our crisis plan and rehearse again. Responding rapidly builds confidence and invites the public to look to you as the authoritative source of information. In the era of fake news, that may yet be the biggest prize.

Donald Steel

Donald Steel is an international responder, trainer and speaker on crisis communications. He works extensively across Europe, the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Australasia. He is a former chief media spokesman at the British Broadcasting Corporation. He is also a director of crisis communications at Kenyon International Emergency Services, a leading commercial responder to incidents involving fatality or injury, and at Johnston Associates, the UK’s leading aviation PR company based at London Heathrow.