Social media crisis management: Connecting when it counts

In the past, when all hell broke loose, regular sources of information could be hard to come by, unreliable, intermittent and downright infuriating; a phone number with a taped message on the other end, a sliver of advice, half-heard from the radio or a massive queue ending in a very flustered customer service operative.

While this can still unfortunately be the case in a lot of instances, a number of recent cases have demonstrated that savvy organisations can use social media channels to keep people informed, disseminating crucial information, answering panicked questions and doing their credibility a whole world of good.

In 2010, when an Icelandic volcano burped a colossal cloud of ash across Northern Europe, millions were affected by the resulting disruption to air traffic. At its worst, less than 20% of the usual European air traffic was able to take to the skies. It was Twitter and Facebook in particular that allowed organisations to keep stranded passengers up to date with the latest developments.

Eurocontrol, the European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation, was a key player in coordinating the mind-boggling operation to keep airlines, press and passengers updated with the latest information around what was a constantly changing situation.

Aurélie Valtat, online communications manager at Eurocontrol, ran the organisation’s social media presence single handed throughout the event. At the initial crisis meeting, she suggested that Twitter would be a better tool for distributing information than the organisation’s outdated, but now redesigned, website, that took up to an hour to update.

The press quickly cottoned on to the fact that Eurocontrol’s Twitter account was the central channel for air travel developments, and the number of people following the feed jumped from 350 to over 7000. Aurelie worked 17 hours a day, answering queries and putting out information.

“Everything was natural and spontaneous,” she says. “There was no strategy as to which questions we would answer. The crucial thing was that the content was useful and we were telling people what they needed to know.

As a result, Eurocontrol’s brand position has changed. This intergovernmental organisation that generally has very little to do with the public, shed its traditional bureaucratic image in little over a week; and is now widely well-regarded and invited regularly by institutions across the EU to give best practice presentations on crisis management through social media.

Working 17 hours a day for the entire week of the crisis, Aurelie says she wasn’t aware of the success she’d achieved until the thank you messages started coming in. Once she was revealed as the face behind the notably personable, immediately reactive and highly useful Eurocontrol Twitter feed, she received a number of invitations to weddings and bar mitzvahs she’d saved, and even a number of direct marriage proposals; though she insists these haven’t been followed up. 


Aurelie Valtat will be joining a panel discussion at this year’s Social Media world Forum Europe on 29 March in London, identifying the lessons learned from the 2010 volcanic eruption and discussing how social media can be used during a crisis.  See the full agenda here