Post-event recap: A Successful Lesson in Social Media Crisis Communications

Written by IABC Ottawa volunteer Samantha Hartley | @msshartley

What do you do when your city streets have been taken over by more than 100,000 students and supporters demonstrating against tuition increases?

You Tweet!

Well, don’t take our word for it. Instead, learn how it worked out for the Montreal Police Service.

On Thursday April 11, 2013, Melissa Carroll, communications officer for the Montreal Police Service, spoke to IABC Ottawa attendees about her experience using social media during public crises on behalf of Canada’s second largest municipal police agency. The student protest is only one example of Melissa’s social media efforts in managing a crisis situation and she shared more with the audience.

IMG_3603In 2011, Melissa assumed the role of community manager for the Montreal Police Service’s Twitter account @SPVM. Never having used Twitter before, this was the start of an unpredictable journey for both Melissa and @SPVM. Melissa recalls taking 10 minutes to send one Tweet, now she’s posting and responding to thousands of Tweets on a weekly basis. How does she manage? @SPVM has refined their approval process and she has assistance from a colleague, but she also credits the continued support of police service staff for understanding her job function and the need for quick, clear and correct information.

Like most organizations considering to use social media, @SPVM was hesitant about communicating online with the public and “opening the floor” to public opinions. Now, three years later with over 54,000 followers, the police service’s Twitter approach has evolved and a sense of trust and openness has been established between @SPVM and the public. For example, @SPVM now receives outreach and questions from Montreal citizens as well as praise for providing tips and announcements to help citizens stay safe and aware.

But, it hasn’t always been positive and it never will.

With public crises come rumours, negative exposure, brand damage and risk. Armed with a radio transmitter, telephone and Tweetdeck or Hootsuite, Melissa acts as an investigator all while communicating with the public from her keyboard and managing multiple issues at hand.IMG_3606

The challenges Melissa highlighted are not much different from any organization, but what is different is the severity and sensitivity of how her messaging can affect the safety and lives of the general public and those of her colleagues on the force:

  • Verifying information received from the public and information given to the public.
  • Answer quickly, but first verify if questions or statements are fact or rumour.
  • Acknowledge and respond to all information being asked or testified about the organization.

Aside from the challenges, Melissa shared some positives such as gaining over 54,000 followers in three years (second in size in North America for police forces after NYPD’s 56,000), working and building relationships with international media, and receiving recognition for being one of the first police forces in Canada to harness Twitter to communicate with civilians of all stripes and in both official languages.

Melissa provided some tips based on her experience managing and executing crisis communications through social media:

  • Tell your side of the story.
  • Counter rumours. If someone posts something false or inaccurate, state the truth and provide evidence or facts if possible.
  • Be present, alert and aware at all times. Even when Melissa is sleeping, @SPVM is being monitored.
  • Time is of the essence. Respond to questions or statements as quickly as possible.
  • You can’t win all battles, but you have to try. Don’t expect things to dissipate or go away on their own.

From safety tips and regulations to festival updates and missing people alerts, Melissa harnesses the power of Twitter to communicate with Montreal citizens and gives them a tool to communicate openly and candidly with @SPVM. In spite of the many battles online and offline, Melissa and her team continue to focus on one goal: to provide Montreal citizens with a public forum to address their questions and concerns, and to inform and help the general public in near real-time.

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