Crisis communications: The role of technology in public outreach

Communication is a key component of any incident handling. Are Hong Kong companies ready to step up the plate when things go awry? An organization that has a business continuity and/or crisis management plan in place in theory has the existing mechanism to quickly issue alerts, advisories and regular updates to internal staff, partners and customers until normal business operations resume.

Several local incidents that hit the headlines in recent months showed that companies in Hong Kong need to ramp up training on their communication skills in emergency situations.

In February, the MTR Corporation was hit by three incidents: two water leaks in its South Horizon station and Sai Ying Pun station, which occurred six days apart, and the more serious evening rush hour fire-bombing inside a train bound for Tsim Sha Tsui station. A month later, a 45 m escalator in Langham Place in Mongkok suddenly reversed its direction and ran two to three times faster than normal, injuring several people and sending a number of weekend shoppers into a panic.

What tie together these incidents was how quickly social media disseminated the information to the public at large almost in real time. With the speed with which news travelled, the companies were left to play catch up.

Get a handle of social media

“Social media has made crisis communications a very important part of every business continuity management program. You cannot hide anymore – people are fact checking everything you say,” said Roberta Witty, research vice president, Gartner.

She urged companies to read the note on “The Do’s and Don’ts of Using Social Media in Business Continuity Management” for more advice.

Unfortunately, many companies do not pay enough attention to their social media platforms before, during and after a crisis, according to Daniel Bould, regional director for crisis management at Aon.

“Many companies do not have twitter feeds or even a Facebook profile on their brand, making it difficult for some to use these tools to communicate effectively and efficiently. There have been cases where corporations have experienced a public crisis where their name and brand have been tarnished when social media platforms have been established by nefarious individuals under that companies’ brand/name – making it very difficult to control the ‘message’,” he said.

He added companies need to get better at reaching out to and coordinating with their client base or involved parties using all forms of available communication.

“Sadly, many companies have not embraced social media platforms and do not see these tools as key communication components,” Bould said.

Get your act together

When an incident is still unfolding, Witty pointed out that communicating to internal and external stakeholders makes the difference between the perception that the organization is in control versus out of control.

“A lot of fear, uncertainty and doubt get created in the absence of information about the event, so the organization needs to communicate to its stakeholders on a regular basis about the status of the event to provide situational awareness,” she said.

“One of the most important pieces of advice we give our clients is that when you communicate to your stakeholders, make sure to tell them when you will communicate with them again, and keep that promise,” Witty added.

Asked about how technology helps improve crisis communication, Witty said having EMNS (Emergency/Mass Notification Services) tools is a huge benefit by being able to get many messages out to many endpoints – voice, SMS, email, digital signage, websites, desktops, public speakers and more – very quickly.

“You can also have prepared messages for any type of event, so that you don’t need to spend precious minutes getting approval to send out a message that may be time-critical. These tools also allow you to conduct two-way communications with your stakeholders – asking if they can help, will they be available to help in the recovery, checking on their safety and more,” she said.

A unified communications platform is needed

In Hong Kong, as well as the rest of Asia Pacific, most companies do not have a unified EMNS platform for crisis communications.

“What we have seen in Hong Kong and other countries are mostly point solutions. Companies have these siloed systems so they can only do either texting or email,” said Adrian Szwarcburg, director, APAC/Africa sales, AtHoc.

AtHoc, a division of BlackBerry, provides EMNS software to large organizations in government, education and mass transportations across North America. The company expanded to the Asia Pacific region a little over a year ago starting in Australia and is now making inroads into Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan.

“In an emergency and crisis situation that may involve the safety and security of your employees and customers, you would like to be able to adopt a multi-channel approach that allows you to integrate existing communications tools into a single platform, to be able to issue alerts to a range of devices, and be able to do that at scale. And one key feature is the ability to do two-way communication so that people can respond if they need to, so a company is able to get some situational awareness of what is going on during a crisis,” he said.

“In these times when there is increased awareness of being held accountable. This reporting capability is essential because it provides a company an order trail of what actually happened during an incident,” Szwarcburg said.

And companies in Hong Kong are aware that they need a more effective communication platform for incident handling.

“In today’s environment where it is not a matter of whether things will happen but when they will happen, there is heightened awareness,” Szwarcburg said. “We have been talking to potential customers here and we are about to do some POCs.”

Meanwhile, Gartner is predicting increased adoption of EMNS tools as more organizations use the ISO 22301:2012 BCM standard, which includes focus on crisis communications.

The research firm also recommends companies to establish strong crisis communications procedures before implementing EMNS – as bad processes will only be highlighted by automating them.

And most of all, they should have people to handle crisis communications.

“You must have persons in charge of your crisis communication efforts. Do not leave it to chance. Otherwise, your reputation can be needlessly damaged,” said Witty.

This article was first published on Computerworld Hong Kong.