Fast 5: Five Things to Know about Social Media and Crisis Communications

Fast 5: Five Things to Know about Social Media and Crisis Communications
May 2, 2017 Erin Callanan

Elaine Driscoll, Massachusetts Gaming Commission

@ElaineDriscoll  @MassGamingComm


The words “community policing” typically conjure up images of police officers walking the beat. In the 21st century, cops on the beat have moved online as well.

The Boston Police Department was one of the pioneers of the use of social media as a communications and outreach tool. Elaine Driscoll was with the Boston Police Department when it began using Twitter in 2009, and it has turned into a method of community engagement as well as crowdsourcing tips. Elaine, a media relations professional with almost 20 years of experience in public relations, crisis communications and community outreach, now serves as Director of Communications at the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

We caught up with Elaine in advance of the Social Media Summit to talk about social media, crises and what she looks forward to most about the summit.

Q: What role can social media play in a crisis?

Social media is the gasoline that spreads a crisis like a wildfire; it can also be the bucket of cold water that helps to put the fire out. The traditional sense of “news cycle” now has far less significance when considering the timing and strategy for addressing a PR crisis. As a result, an organization must be prepared to be nimble and decisive with an initial response, whether the crisis was anticipated or a spontaneous occurrence.

Social media also provides an organization with a quick and efficient mechanism to respond directly to the masses. This direct access to the public provides an extraordinary ability to control the presentation of your message and influence public perception minus the filter applied by traditional media outlets, but that’s IF you get your response right. You can count on the court of public opinion to let you know quickly if the response is inadequate (Hello, United Airlines).

Q: You have worked at both the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and the Boston Police Department. How have those organizations used social media to communicate to their audiences?

The Mass Gaming Commission and the Boston Police Department have different missions, but they are similar in their need for a robust communications infrastructure. MGC and BPD require a communications outreach strategy that is efficient and practical for executing a high volume of external communications, provides for two-way interactions and public participation, and enhances transparency. Both agencies depend on social media to achieve their organizational priorities and goals.

Q: Can you give an example of how you may have effectively managed social media during a crisis in the past?

Social media is a tremendous tool to assist with the management of a crisis, particularly one involving public safety. It’s important to note that it will only be truly effective if it has been test-driven before an organization needs it to perform. Building an audience and your organization’s reputation for communicating prior to an inevitable crisis is paramount. The BPD is highly adept at crisis communications because of how they utilize their communications system when they are not in crisis. The BPD was one of the first police departments in the country to use Twitter. It started in 2009 by simply issuing public safety and traffic instructions for a St. Patrick’s Day parade. In the years that followed, the department’s use of Twitter and other social media channels evolved significantly and became everything from a friendly and innovative way to connect with the community to the remarkably effective use of crowdsourcing tips and investigative leads.

The 2011 Occupy Boston movement offers an interesting case study in the department’s advanced use of social media. Other cities had a far more contentious experience with the Occupy movement than Boston. I believe that strong and non-adversarial communication was a major contributor to the largely successful outcome of the 70-day protest in Dewey Square – much of that communication took place over Twitter, which was an approach unique to Boston.  That same year, the BPD’s Twitter account had more followers than any other police organization in the world.

Q: With the number of social media platforms out there, how can organizations effectively monitor the conversation and address crises?

There are many effective ways to monitor social media conversations. I prefer Tweetdeck and Meltwater News. When an organization is deciding which social media channels to use as part of its communications infrastructure, it depends on what you are selling and to whom – a high fashion boutique has different communication needs than a government agency. I don’t think there is a one-size-fits-all strategy except that I would always urge quality over quantity. I don’t think most organizations can adopt every social media channel and do them all well. An organization should identify where it is most likely to reach its target audiences and master that communication before casting too wide a net.

Q: What are you most looking forward to about the Social Media Summit?

I enjoy the opportunity to share my experiences and also deeply appreciate the chance to learn from my peers. As PR practitioners, we have to continue to evolve in our trade and enhance our skill set in order to stay relevant and keep up with an ever-changing world of traditional and social media.

About Fast 5

This is a feature of PRSA Boston’s Hot Topics ( blog page. The expert subject is someone who is clearly in demand, on the go, and nailing them down for a conversation is on the fly! But we know leaders like to share, so check back for insights, wisdom, authors’ books about to hit the stands and other valuable tips. @prsaboston #prsabos

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author or the individual being interviewed and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of PRSA Boston, PRSA National, staff or  board of directors of either organization. 


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