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Whooping Cranes and Hurricanes: Social Media Crisis Management

By Leslie Welch

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there are dozens of stories illustrating how national, state, and local government agencies leveraged the power of social media to communicate with citizens. Rewind 30 years and the same level of information dissemination would have been impossible. And, if you remember rewinding, you also remember that the best way to connect with government agencies used to involve a stamp or a long distance call.

Today, anyone with a login can reach out to local, state, or federal agencies, and get a quick response. But the relationship between government and citizen does not end with a reply to a comment or tweet. Recently, I caught up with NDi’s social media strategist, Karen Snyder.  Karen has the monumental responsibility of managing the FAA’s social media presence. When I asked her how she spent her day, I was surprised to learn that a lot of her time was devoted to listening, or monitoring social media chatter.

Ultralight Plane Teaching Whooping Cranes A Migration Path

“Listening is the key to reputation management. Trends can alert you to situations before they escalate into a social media crisis,” says Snyder. “The grounding of the whooping cranes is a great example of a crisis averted—thanks to listening.”

Snyder is referring to the grounding of ultra-light planes that were teaching captive-bred whooping cranes how to migrate from Canada to Florida. The project, led by Operation Migration, hit turbulance when an FAA investigation stopped their southern progress. The pilots (who did not hold commercial licenses) were in violation of a regulation prohibiting sport pilots from being compensated for flying. Negative tweets about the incident ruffled feathers of bird lovers and conservationists nation-wide. But, because they were listening, Karen and her team were already preventing a crisis before it began.

“We alerted public affairs personnel as soon as we saw an increase in negative comments,” says Snyder. “On Saturday, articles from high profile news outlets popped up. By Monday morning, Acting Administrator Michael Huerta granted a waiver to allow the flock to continue its journey. The whole incident escalated over the weekend. But, because we were monitoring, we were able to address it quickly.”

Once the waiver was granted, the FAA saw a rapid decline in negative comments and an influx of positive ones. “We avoided a crisis, but most important, we helped get the flock back in the air,” says Snyder. As they say, 99% of communication is listening, and when it comes to a social media crisis, prevention is always the best policy.

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