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Few would have thought that a volcano would give companies a unique opportunity to test their social media strategies. But when the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland shut European airspace for several days, airlines and airports needed to quickly communicate updates to hundreds of thousands of stranded passengers across the world. For some, social media proved an important solution.

That companies might turn to social media would hardly surprise those stuck at home or abroad; after all, they themselves were using it extensively. 'This was the first global crisis in the Twitter and Facebook generation,' says Jon Silk, senior digital consultant at Waggener Edstrom. 'In a global situation where people needed to communicate as quickly as possible across national boundaries and time zones, it lent itself as the perfect way to communicate.' And communicate they did. Popular groups on Facebook included 'Carpool Europe', 'When Volcanoes Erupt' and 'I need to get home', while Twitter followers focused discussion and support groups around hashtags including #ashcloud, #getmehome and #ashtag.

Obvious passenger frustrations aside, Facebook and Twitter seemed to galvanise this community of like-minded travellers, enabling them to seek practical solutions from companies and each other. For travel companies, there would surely never be a better time to engage with a network that was seeking help and was more than ready to listen.

'People had an expectation that businesses, particularly travel carriers, would have a presence in social media and would be communicating updates in real time using things like Twitter,' says Marshall Manson, director of digital strategy at Edelman UK. 'I think if you look at the conversation in the second week of the crisis in particular, there really was an expectation that ferries and airlines were going to be proactive and transparent in putting information out that would be easily accessible in places where people commonly assemble rather than them necessarily having to go to the websites. Those companies that picked up on that built up some goodwill with customers. For those that didn't, it was a massive missed opportunity.'

Sadly, the jury is still out on how effectively companies used social media for crisis communication during this incident. Alex Pearmain, a consultant at Fishburn Hedges, says he was quite surprised at how many airlines and airports used social media, singling out Heathrow Airport, Virgin Atlantic and easyJet for praise. Stuart Bruce, co-founder and managing director of communications consultancy Wolfstar, thought SAS Scandinavia and KLM did well in embracing social media as a gateway to information for both customers and concerned friends and family.

Their bilingual Twitter and Facebook accounts posted a constant stream of updates throughout the crisis and even took the time to reply to users,' says Bruce. But he also noticed general failings. 'Other companies like Air France decided not to take advantage of social media during the crisis. The result was frustrated users being met with complete silence on both their Facebook and Twitter feeds, reflecting badly on the company,' he adds.

Paul Armstrong, digital director at integrated communications agency Kindred, points out that many companies were simply unprepared. 'Social media can be overwhelming but they didn't have stakes in the ground that I thought they would have, such as statements at the ready etcetera,' he says. 'You have to remember that Twitter and the like are a lot faster forms of communication than a call centre; such tools could have been used far more advantageously.'

Making room for social media in a crisis

An issue that no doubt stymied some organisations in their use of social media was the sheer complication of the task at hand. For example, budget airline easyJet had 200,000 passengers stranded - half at home and half elsewhere. Communications director Oliver Aust adds that many of those did not have a computer in front of them. 'We had to try every avenue possible to keep people informed, especially at certain times like when we finally got the go-ahead to fly and we then had to get people to come to the airport,' he says.

With the call-centre inundated, easyJet sent out 500,000 emails and 250,000 text messages to passengers as well as regularly updating via Facebook and Twitter.

The challenge was hardly less daunting for Thomson Holidays. During the first few days of the crisis, the company had 45,000 stranded customers overseas and aircraft in the wrong places. 'Staff were available in all our major hotels for at least 12 hours a day, and a dedicated text and call centre service was also available,' says online communications manager Jane Delany. 'In terms of social activity, @thomsonholidays is an established account and throughout the incident we made full use of this as an additional channel to keep our customers informed, with tweets linking back to the latest information on'

By 29 April, Delany says that the company had received 880 pieces of print and online coverage and 219 broadcast clips - an achievement that undoubtedly stretched the communications team.For many companies, such a test of existing resources might have meant that a relatively new channel such as social media could be easily overlooked. 'Social media is an evolving medium,' says Pearmain. 'When a crisis happens you have to prioritise and if you are going to prioritise anything it's probably going to be the website rather than cross-channel social media. Everyone is finding their way on this.'

Pearmain believes communications professionals may struggle to find the time to incorporate social media into their crisis strategies. 'If you're head of communications for a FTSE 100 company, you'll have enough crises to deal with already. It's a luxury to have the time to get up to speed with the changing nature of the communications role in terms of social media. Most communications structures would like to be more clued up on social media but it's having the head space to get there,' he says.

The problem of ownership

Waggener Edstrom's Silk takes a similar view but thinks the problem also lies in confused ownership. 'A lot of social media strategies are quite new and there are still issues over whether it should be managed by PR, marketing, crisis communications, or sometimes IT and digital teams. This crisis was a great test of these processes; it showed where their processes were good and where they didn't work.'

Silk was scheduled to fly during the crisis and, as a result, was singularly aware of the updates - or otherwise - and noticed a lack of updates followed by a flurry of promotional marketing material once airspace re-opened. 'I wish they'd used those channels during the crisis to tell me what was going on,' he says. 'It showed how companies need a more joined up approach so the channel can be used by the most appropriate team at the right time.'

Reflection on the company

Of course, one of the key problems here might not just be ownership issues but that social media has, to date, rarely been called upon in a crisis. Consequently, it may not get included in a company's crisis planning or get much attention from crisis communication experts. But such a stance may be changing. There are increasing examples of companies getting into sticky water because of their ill-thought-out approach to social media. Greenpeace's recent attack on Nestlé via its Facebook site actually resulted in the confectionery company being forced to apologise for being rude to users after an employee posted an unguarded response to the protests.

'One danger is when the person responding to the crisis does not understand social media well enough and therefore is not able to handle the situation well,' says Bruce. 'It needs to be planned and run at a senior level, not delegated to a young 'digital native'. Attacking and criticising users will only ever reflect badly on a company trying to defend themselves online.'

Despite its relative immaturity as a communications tool, there is broad agreement that companies will increasingly need to engage via social media if they are to maintain their reputation. 'Social media has become such a routine part of many people's lives that it seems normal in such a situation to check in on sites like Twitter and Facebook,' says Bruce. 'Corporates should set up accounts on these sites and take full advantage of them, but be prepared to be just as active during a crisis. Those who are not proactive and don't engage with their audience leave themselves open for criticism.'

There is no better example of this than when a Eurostar train got stuck in a tunnel last year, trapping 2,000 people. Eurostar was roundly criticised for failing to communicate with passengers during the crisis, including ignoring its Twitter account. Such failings will no longer go unnoticed or unchallenged.

It seems that, to date, for many companies, social media is viewed as no more than an opportunity to market products or services. As a result, those social media channels owned by the marketing and advertising teams often fall silent in a crisis as promotional activity is temporarily abandoned. Those owning the channel are also often woefully ill-prepared to handle unexpected communication challenges as shown by the Nestlé incident. Crisis situations, however, are unlikely to go away and as people use social media more and more, they will increasingly expect companies to do the same - crisis or otherwise. It will not be good enough to just avoid social media; it is clearly here to stay. Nor will consumers or stakeholders be impressed by a half-hearted social media strategy that fails to communicate when it really matters. Companies must now look to building a good social media plan that is integrated into broader communications, and that engages people in the way that they expect: in both good times and in bad.

Tips from the consultants: how to build a social media crisis plan

Encourage your communications professionals to use social media tools on a regular basis, and build your networks in advance. You will not have the luxury of creating a Twitter or Facebook presence once you're in the midst of a crisis.

Think about ownership - who manages your social media and will they know what to do in a crisis?

Don't leave social media to just one person. It has to be integrated into the rest of your corporate communications programme - both crisis and proactive communications - so that all are prepared to get involved and respond appropriately at any given time.

Plan for the crisis fallout. What resources will you need to effectively man your Facebook and Twitter sites? Remember, whatever message you put out will likely receive hundreds of responses. You may need other experts such as a customer services agent and operational manager on hand to answer or direct queries.If you don't have significant resources to man your social media sites in a crisis, at least make sure you have something ready to put up on your sites quickly - even if it is just a holding message directing people to your website or call centre.

Ensure that any messages you put out are checked in advance. You may feel pressed for time in a crisis, but don't create another one by allowing rude or inaccurate messages to go out.