Breaking news now travels at the speed of Twitter, and it’s posing a tremendous challenge for businesses and organizations. It is quickly becoming clear that the traditional model for crisis communications response is antiquated and inadequate, as evidenced by the public critique of Metro’s response to last week’s fatal rail crash that killed nine riders in DC. The communications lesson learned from the crash is that the public demands the facts directly from the source and it wants them instantaneously. For commuters kept in the dark, Metro failed them in both respects.
An important lesson learned is to make sure that your direct audience – in this case, Metro riders – learns the news first. A Washington Post report reveals that Metro officials provided much clearer notification to the media in press releases than in alerts provided to the public, leaving commuters stranded on platforms or in trains grasping for details. For the first two hours following the crash, the travel alert on the WMATA website warned only of “a train experiencing mechanical difficulties” on the Red Line. Dissatisfied with the canned response, commuters learned of the news instead via Twitter, the Web, and text messages from concerned friends. As one frustrated Red Line commuter wrote to the Washington Post, “How can people around the country know that there was something a bit more serious than a mechanical difficulty and I didn’t?”
Metro’s traditional approach – tell commuters only what they need to know (e.g. service has been suspended along the red line), issue press releases, and conduct press interviews – ultimately backfired. Officials were diligent in issuing news releases, e-alerts, and emergency announcements, but the news seemed to always lag behind what was being reported elsewhere across the Web and the details were sparse. Metro may have been trying to shield its riders from the horrific details of the crash, but by failing to report the full extent of the incident, it lost credibility and the subsequent ability to control the dissemination of information.
Communications in the Twitter age is a challenge. You’ve got to respond quickly, accurately, and truthfully if you want to stay ahead of the news and lead the conversation. If you don’t, then people will simply turn elsewhere for their news.