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The Use of Hashtags in Your Crisis Communications

03 Jun

hashtagOne of my favorite crisis bloggers, Kim Stephens, recently published an interesting summary of two reports by Project Hazards Emergency Response and Online Informal Communication (HEROIC), on their research around the use of Twitter by officials in the Boston Marathon Bombings. There are many aspects of these reports that are very interesting, but the thing that struck me the most was the inconsistency of hashtag use, across the board, during the week of events that followed the Marathon Bombings. (Read Kim’s entire summary and take-aways here.)

The reports state that:

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.

This is a big deal. Without consistency, your target audience:

  • Doesn’t know which hashtags to monitor for all updates, information and help requests
  • Has a high-risk chance of missing important updates and information that needs to be shared and retweeted
  • In the case of the Boston Marathon Bombings: Officials had no way of tracking and keeping up-to-speed on different departments and agencies’ progress

Having a pre-determined hashtag strategy is something that needs to be organized before a crisis – and this goes for companies, organizations and schools, just as it applies to government officials and emergency responders.

What your hashtag strategy needs to include

Whether your crisis hashtag strategy includes a pre-determined hashtag or not, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do in fact develop a hashtag strategy before a crisis strikes. This crisis hashtag strategy should include:

  • Defining the role a hashtag will and must play within your crisis communications
  • Guidelines and policies for using the hashtag within your crisis communications
  • Where internal and external stakeholders can go to learn more about the hashtag strategy, including what the hashtag actually is during any given crisis
  • How you would like your audience to use the hashtag in a crisis

The importance of developing your hashtag strategy pre-crisis

Hashtags provide a way of grouping relevant information for ease of following, finding and sharing on social networks. The easiest way to group all of your communications in a crisis on Twitter is by using a dedicated hashtag. This dedicated hashtag:

Keeps communications organized: No one following the crisis will miss a tweet or any important news. This makes it easy for your stakeholders to follow and share important information regarding the crisis.

Time efficiency: The proper use of hashtags makes your organization’s life much simpler in a crisis. Once your hashtag strategy has been determined, everyone is aware and the appropriate people can begin to use these strategies as soon as possible.

Makes monitoring easier: Others know what hashtag to use to make it easier for your team to monitor information, news and inquiries about the crisis from your stakeholders.

Great for documenting post-crisis: Documenting a crisis once it has been resolved is an important end-step within your crisis management. Having all of your organization’s, and many stakeholders’, tweets grouped together makes the task of documenting that much easier.

In conclusion

Twitter plays an essential role within your crisis management, and within that essential role are different strategies for efficient and effective crisis communications. The use of crisis hashtags are one of the most important of those strategies.

Is your company or organization prepared with a crisis hashtag strategy?

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5 Responses to “The Use of Hashtags in Your Crisis Communications”

  1. Victoria June 11, 2013 at 5:52 am #

    Thank you for your post Melissa. Crisis hashtags are an obvious yet often overlooked communication strategy. Following on from one of your earlier posts about online reputation, the crisis hashtag strategy could definitely help to build a positive reputation.

    • Melissa Agnes June 11, 2013 at 9:16 am #

      That's a good point, Victoria. Aside from the crisis comms aspect of hashtags, when done right, they can be a powerful marketing tool as well. But as we've seen many hashtag campaigns fail, it's important to play devil's advocate and evaluate the potential risk involved. The McDonald's hashtag fail seems to come instantly to mind when I think of this risk!

  2. Ryan Smith June 27, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

    Wouldn't a consistent hashtag lead to exposing vulnerabilities in police strategies during a terrorist crisis such as the Boston Bombings? For example, if safe destinations were divulged using Twitter along with a specific hashtag, terror suspects would have sensitive information handed to them on a silver platter? Or if descriptions of the suspect and last know whereabouts where spread via Twitter and hashtags, the suspects would have information they needed to help avoid capture. I understand the need for easy access to relevant communication during a crisis, but at what point is your consistency deepening the crisis?

    I agree during disaster relief a consistent hashtag is appropriate and necessary; however, during a terrorist attack I believe information is best passed along virally.

    • Melissa Agnes June 28, 2013 at 11:09 am #

      Hi Ryan,

      I hear what you’re saying, but the fact is that all of this information is already out there on these channels. And if they aren’t, then they won’t be with a hashtag either. I’m not talking about adding new and privileged content that may compromise an investigation to Twitter and other social channels. I’m referring to the importance of categorizing important information and updates already being posted, so that they are easily found by the right people, which will in-turn make the investigation run that much smoother.

      For examples, we don’t want two people doing the same job, when one is already doing it. And we certainly don’t want important communications to be missed because it is not easily found. Having a hashtag strategy makes important information trackable, searchable and facilitates communications. Yes, the perpetrators can easily find this information as well, but this information is already findable online, on the same channels. It’s simply adding a hashtag to the already existing tweets and communications to facilitate the lives and jobs of our officials.

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    [...] Management blogger Melissa Agnes recently detailed the importance of hashtags. Consistent use allows your company and customers to monitor conversation threads for all updates [...]

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