Yes, it was highly embarrassing when a tweet from the BBC falsely reported that the Queen had died. And yes, it will probably be a permanent blot on the reputation of the unfortunate reporter who made the blunder.
At one level it’s a reminder of the impact that a mistaken message can have. Think no further than the Indonesian blogger in 2010 who reported that a Qantas A380 had crashed after taking off from Singapore, and posted pictures of pieces of wreckage. The false claim was picked up by mainstream media and caused the airline’s share price to start falling before it was correctly reported that an engine had caught fire, but the aircraft and all its passengers were safe.
However, at a more strategic level, the BBC’s embarrassment over a reporter’s untrue announcement provides us with some important lessons about crisis management.
The first and most important is the need to practice. The BBC’s rogue tweet leaked out during what the broadcaster has called a “category-one obituary rehearsal.” While their execution was less than perfect, the intention was right on the money. Systems designed to respond to the unexpected need to be rehearsed and tweaked constantly, and that’s a major failing for many organisations. They commit resources to developing the very best crisis management process and producing a fancy manual, but fail to schedule regular, planned exercises and simulations.
The reality is that the process is of very little value if the key participants haven’t practised and this means more than just holding a drill once a year to tick a box on the crisis planning to-do list. A full scale drill is important, but there is real value in also assembling the team to workshop how they might have responded to another organisation’s recent crisis, as well as to test the activation process; to introduce and educate new members; to check and update contact lists and other documentation; and review to preparedness of the ‘crisis room.’
The second clear lesson from the BBC’s Royal tweet debacle is that using social media during exercises can be problematic. But social media is now such a critical element in crisis management that it cannot properly be left out of the training agenda. Indeed, in a recent discussion piece, crisis consultant Kim Stephens, wrote in detail how you can provide an exercise environment that allows participants to engage with online content, using everyday social media platforms. She said protected Twitter accounts and closed Facebook groups can be used without any issues regarding information getting released to the public or news media.
Our conclusion here is that social media training for a crisis is just too important to be left to chance. As Qantas CEO Alan Joyce admitted to the Wall Street Journal after the A380 near-disaster off Singapore, while the airline was ready for traditional media and responded quickly, they missed the whole social media end of communication
Management readiness needs to be a planned and scheduled activity, and it’s a marathon not a sprint. When I published research from interviewing top executives about crisis preparedness, one of them told me that training was a bit like going to the gym. “You can’t just go once and say ‘I’ve done it now.’ You’ve got to do it on a regular basis. Otherwise the skills disappear.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.