November 25, 2019
False information can spread on social media and become “almost impossible to manage,” according to a communications consultant, unless the right strategy is in place.
Minutes after the partial collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans last month, videos of the devastating accident flooded the internet. Using just their smartphones, bystanders captured the destruction and chaos that left three workers dead and 30 people injured. Videos and images from the horrific accident spread quickly on social media, from Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and Snapchat.
Partly because of the shocking footage, the incident quickly became national news, where the videos were replayed on news programs repeatedly throughout the days and weeks afterward.
The fast pace of social media has changed how construction companies need to respond to a crisis, said Anthony Huey, president of Columbus, Ohio-based consulting firm Reputation Management. It makes quickly communicating with the news media more important than ever to make sure the correct information gets out.
In fast-changing situations, platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram sometimes breed misleading and wrong information that often goes viral, said Huey, who has been helping U.S. contractors sharpen their crisis communications skills since 2004.
In fact, most problems Huey has seen in the dozens of crises he’s been involved with relate to misinformation that spread in the first minutes and hours after an accident. He tells clients to make an initial statement within the first 45 minutes to help “set the record straight.”
“If it takes several hours for you to get back to the media or update your employees, in that vacuum of silence people are speculating and misinformation is leaking out,” he said.
Perfect storm of events
An example of this, Huey said, is the day the newly opened Florida International University pedestrian bridge collapsed in 2018. Heavy equipment had to be moved out of the way to make room for emergency vehicles. As the operator of a construction crane moved the piece of equipment off-site, a bystander took a photo and posted it on social media.
The image was picked up by the Miami Herald with the headline “Crane operator flees scene.” Readers quickly jumped on social media to speculate that the driver might have had something to do with the accident, which was later proven to be false. The report also appeared in other local media outlets and as far away as the New York Post and the Daily Mail, a U.K.-based publication.
Huey said the case is an example of how incorrect information can quickly go viral and said the contractor and crane operator should have quashed the report when it first appeared. But no one from either company called the Miami Herald or took to social media to refute the story, he said. “To this day, it’s still out there for anyone to see.”
Via photos and videos, social media can also record small problems and amplify them into big ones, Huey said. “In the past, if someone made a blunder on a jobsite and the TV news didn’t pick it up, it would not make it into the public’s awareness, but now it lives forever on Google,” he said.
Patricia Kagerer, executive vice president of risk management at Jordan Foster Construction in Dallas, agrees, saying that construction firms of all sizes must have a process to monitor online comments.
“Old school thinking was to ignore it,” she said, “but today that is no longer the case.”
It ‘won’t happen to us’
The power of social media to amplify or distort bad news is just one reason why firms need to have a crisis communications plan in place, said Huey. However, a majority of construction companies don’t have one and prefer to think a major catastrophe “won’t happen to us.”
He looks at social media as a double-edged sword, one with the power to spread misinformation but also to create an opportunity for general contractors and subs to communicate to a large number of people very quickly.
Platforms like Facebook and Twitter offer potential benefits for promoting positive company news but they can also be drivers of bad news, making accidents seem worse than they are. Not having a plan for how to handle negative information on social media can impact future business, according to Kagerer, who helps to oversee the emergency response plan at Jordan Foster Construction.
“If you don’t have a plan as to how to handle the fact that somebody’s out there saying that your company kills people or if you’re not even aware of it, it could cost you a potential job in the future,” she said. “I can assure you that your owners are aware of it.”
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