Social Media in Crisis Communication: A Lesson Learned by Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

Submitted by Brett on Thu, 11/11/2010 - 12:35pm

Jenifer R Daniels, Communications & Marketing Specialist, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library

Crisis communications is often studied by public relations practitioners but seldom is it used. Theorists like this author’s graduate advisor, Dr. Matt Seeger, who have researched and executed crisis communications, promote the theory that you can effectively communicate during a crisis and turn it into an opportunity.  But how are today’s nonprofit organizations charged with managing crises when their operating budgets have been turned on their heads? Many are turning to social media to assist them. 

In 1963, Charles Hermann defined a crisis with 3 distinct characteristics: surprise, threat and short response time. Unfortunately, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library’s budget woes were defined by all three.

In March of 2010, the Mecklenburg County manager advised library leaders that we should plan for a 50% reduction in our operating budget due to a drastic reduction in taxable revenues throughout the county; projecting an $85million shortfall. While it meant that Mecklenburg County would be able to balance its books, it also meant that our library system, although it has consistently grown its usage and visitors, would now be forced to shrink. The Library system was now charged with informing our patrons [and the taxpaying public] how and why this was happening.  

With a depleted communications budget for the current fiscal year [after the library was asked to return $2M during the last 3 months of FY09-10 to balance the county’s budget], the Office of Marketing & Communications looked to social media to assist in executing aspects of our crisis communications plan. 

Developing a strategy 

The Office of Marketing & Communications began the task of dealing with the uncertainty of the library’s future with one strategy in mind – creating communication messages asking the public to “learn the facts” and “join the conversation”.  We knew that we could move from crisis to opportunity if we went back to basics; reminding the public on who we are, what we do, and who we serve.  In our integrated communications plan, we believed that taking advantage of social media tools would assist us because of its social nature; allowing us “always be on” and present in the community conversation. We also believed that it would give us the opportunity to frame the communications message in real time - without a filter; therefore, we developed a strategy that involved listening, relationship building, transparency, and message management.

Implementing the strategy

The Office of Marketing & Communications began our strategy by implementing the process of ‘listening’ – a term used in social media to denote being quiet in the space and monitoring what is being said about your organization or brand. We needed to determine what the sentiment was in regard to the Library. We’re we being viewed as good stewards or a mismanager of funds? We’re we perceived as being transparent about the budget crisis? We needed to discover what information the public needed from us to help them formulate a decision about whether to support us during this crisis.

After we completed the listening phase, we began the process of relationship building. We chose two specific social media networks, Facebook and Twitter, to assist us. By turning our Facebook fan page into a community feedback forum, we were able to harness the power of our patrons by seeking their comments and suggestions in regards to our crisis. We found that our patrons wanted more information and transparency from us. They wanted to be able to scavenge through our budget; crowdsourcing possible solutions and savings.  Because of this, we updated our website’s budget page and created a shorter url (cmlibrary.org/budget) that was easy to distribute through social networks.

Next, our patrons felt that our board of trustee meetings were held at a time and location that was inconvenient to them. We quickly accommodated their needs using Twitter; live-tweeting so that they would be able to participate virtually. While we didn’t use their specific tweets during the public comment section of our meetings, their comments were threaded by our official hashtag – #cmlibrary - and served as a repository shared with board members (and staff) after each meeting.

The most critical aspect of this strategy was our ability to manage our message. During the budget crisis, the library was in the media daily; but as we know, the media shapes stories based on talking points and sound bites. By providing unfiltered information, facts, figures and statistics, and public comments, the Office of Marketing & Communications was able to shape and control our own message – one that asked them to support their library in our time of need.

What we learned 

During the two months of the public announcement of the possible budget reduction, our Facebook and Twitter accounts saw an increase of over 800% in fans and followers. At the peak of the crisis, we were receiving a traffic count of over 1500 fans a week on Facebook [current fan totals on Facebook are over 4,200 and Twitter - 1700].  This illustrated the public’s view of our social media presences as the sole source of information during the budget crisis.  Our Twitter hashtag became a news outlet; featured on the homepage of the local newspaper’s website, CharlotteObserver.com, and one media official even contacting a colleague in regards to a ‘tweet’ that went live prior to an accompanying press release to confirm its validity.   

One of our most impressive stats was the amount raised from the public grassroots effort to support the financial health of the library in the current fiscal year (FY09-10) where we were asked to return $2Million.  Using only social media and word of mouth marketing, we have raised over $400,000 from the public and received over 1900 contributions originating from our social media friendly link - cmlibrary.org/donatenow

Overall, we believe that the use of social media helped turn our budget crisis into an opportunity.  Our strategy of listening, relationship building, fostering transparency, and message management introduced new patrons to the library and kept our current ones informed. Ultimately, as our Board of Trustees Chair Robin Branstrom put it, it allowed us to “live to fight another day”.

Sources 
1. Effective Crisis Communication: Moving from Crisis to Opportunity, Ulmer, Sellnow & Seeger, 2007, Sage Publications 
2. Hermann, C. (1963), “Some Consequences of Crisis Which Limit the Viability of 
Organizations”, Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 8, pp. 61-82. 

Jenifer Daniels is an award-winning communications practitioner with more than 10 years experience in nonprofit communications and is known professionally as 'the friendraiser'. She also serves as adjunct faculty at a community college in the metro Charlotte region. Jenifer writes for several national and local blogs including her own, 'the art of friendraising' and has trained hundreds in public relations and communications at various regional and national workshops and conferences. She has been featured in the Detroit Free Press, on several local tv networks in Detroit, MI and Charlotte, NC and on Sirius/XM's 'Make It Plain w/ Mark Thompson'. Jenifer has a certificate in nonprofit management, a masters in communication and is currently earning a graduate certificate in professional communication.