Managing Hashtags in Your Crisis Communications

Managing Hashtags in Your Crisis Communications

Photo by Anna Creech on Flickr

Rob Swystun, Pristine Advisers

I’m sometimes called upon to ‘cover’ events like conferences using only Twitter (using the tweets that people send out from the event). Usually, this is fairly simple because all I need to do is find the hashtag that the event is using and do a search for that hashtag and all the tweets pertaining to that event pop up.

The only time it really gets frustrating is when it becomes obvious that the event organizers failed to declare a hashtag for their event ahead of time. Sometimes this doesn’t matter, as the event participants will collectively come together on their own and start using a uniform hashtag.

Other times, though, you end up with a bunch of different hashtags being used and very little uniformity across the board (or, in one case, the hashtag that was unofficially adopted had to compete with tweets about a Spanish soccer player and a Japanese video game that had already been using that particular hashtag). And while this doesn’t really matter much during a conference, during a crisis, it’s another story.

Using hashtags during a crisis

Crisis blogger Kim Stephens did a summary of two reports by Project Hazards Emergency Response and Online Informal Communication (HEROIC), about their research of the use of Twitter by officials during the Boston Marathon bombings. One thing that stood out in the reports was the inconsistent use of hashtags by officials.

The reports state:

“While there were a series of events throughout the week, including the detonation of improvised explosive devices at the beginning of the week, the killing of a police officer at MIT, and the lockdowns of Boston and Watertown, there was no indication that a consistent hashtag emerged or trended among official organizations to organize their content into a traceable stream.”

Now, obviously nobody expected two bombs to go off during the Boston Marathon so officials can be forgiven for not having a hashtag picked out to use during a crisis that took everyone by surprise.

But even after the crisis happened and Tweets were flying fast and furiously, there was no general consensus that formed over which hashtag would be used by officials during the crisis.

For organizations dealing with a crisis, the use of consistent hashtags is important because without consistency, your audience won’t know which hashtags to monitor for important updates, information and help requests and they could miss important updates that should be shared and retweeted.

Even if a crisis only involves a single organization, that organization may have multiple people tweeting about the crisis and, therefore, an agreed upon hashtag will help organize those tweets.

For companies, organizations, schools and even government officials and emergency responders, it’s a good idea to have a predetermined hashtag picked out ahead of time. Of course, that means it will have to be relatively nondescript to begin with. Going back to the Boston Marathon example, probably nobody would’ve thought to have #Bostonbombing picked out prior to the incident happening, but something a bit more generic like #BostonMarathonEmergency could have been picked out.

What your hashtag strategy should include

Having a predetermined hashtag picked out is less important than the strategy behind its usage. Often, as with the Boston bombings, obvious hashtags will present themselves and can be agreed upon relatively quickly. But a strategy for their usage will take longer to create and implement.

This strategy should:

  • Define the role that the chosen hashtag will play in your crisis communications
  • Present guidelines and policies for the use of the hashtag within the context of your crisis communications
  • Explain where people can go to learn more about the hashtag strategy, including what the hashtag is during any given crisis
  • Explain how you want your audience to use the hashtag in a crisis

The importance of developing your hashtag strategy pre-crisis

As stated previously, the whole point of hashtags is to organize and group information so it’s easy to follow, get new information and share it across social networks. During a crisis, a dedicated hashtag is ideal for:

  • Keeping communications organized: Any of your stakeholders following the crisis will be able to catch all the tweets and important news sent out, making it easier to follow and share important information.
  • Efficiency: Once you have your hashtag strategy in place, everyone should be aware of it and the appropriate people should be able to begin using it when necessary as soon as possible.
  • Making monitoring easy: Being able to find information easily also means it will also be easier for your team to monitor news and information about the crisis from stakeholders.
  • Documenting post-crisis: When a crisis has subsided, it’s an important step to document it for future reference. Having all the tweets accessible in one place with a dedicated hashtag will make this process much easier.

A reverse case study

Usually a case study is about successes, but this one is about failure. But then we can all learn from failure, right?

You probably heard/read/saw the news about a Taco Bell employee posting photos on Facebook of himself licking taco shells at work in early June of this year (still not as bad as the Subway employee who posted photos of himself putting his penis on the buns at work).

Now, this is obviously a crisis with a capital C. So, obviously Taco Bell jumped into action and got on all their available social networking sites to diffuse the situation, complete with a dedicated hashtag, right? Uh … no.

Taco Bell reacted to the situation in a perfectly acceptable manner … if it were 2004. But in 2013, the restaurant’s reaction belied its complete lack of understanding about how crises — especially ones that originate on social media — should be handled.

Taco Bell’s initial response was to post a statement to the News Releases page on its website. And while this was a necessary step, the news releases page is probably the least-viewed page on a fast food restaurant’s website.

Instead of promoting this release and telling people where to find it or also posting the content of it on their Facebook fan page and Twitter account, Taco Bell limited itself to responding to individual comments on its Facebook fan page. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of one-on-one interaction, obviously, but it should have been coupled with a more general response effort so people wouldn’t have to go searching through comment threads to find the company’s statements on the incident.

Things went from bad to worse for the bell of taco when the company not only ignored their social media accounts like Twitter but disabled comments on the Facebook fan page. Doing this does not stop people from talking about a crisis. It just adds to it, and makes a company look foolish for taking the head-in-the-sand approach. (Is this what they mean by ‘thinking outside the bun?’)

Aside from putting a more thorough update on its News Releases page, Taco Bell didn’t really do much else to allay people’s concerns about the conduct of their employees.

This situation needed much more than just a dedicated hashtag, but that would’ve been a good place to start. With a hashtag like #TacoBellphoto, the company could have put it on all communication regarding the incident (including the press release) and prompted their customers to use it when talking about it on Twitter and Facebook. They could have asked their fans to retweet and help promote their statement about the incident, helping it to reach a larger audience using the hashtag.

Hopefully Taco Bell has learned from the experience and will be more prepared to respond in a manner that is more up-to-date than they did with their last crisis.

(I’d say hopefully fast food restaurants stop having problems with employees molesting food, but we all know it’ll happen again. … and there will be photos.)

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