This is a guest post by Deola Kayode

red cross kenyaCrisis happens. A sub-standard product. Poor customer service. A leaked document. Controversial video, blog post or article. Crisis-laden information spreads with lightening speed on social media. If you consider this list of worst social media disasters in 2011 (mashable complied another list in 2012) and you will agree that whether you are a business professional with a blossoming career, celebrity, start-up, well established brand, country or non-profit organisation, crisis happens to the best of us. The difference is how we respond. Crisis communication and its management is not new, but in the age of digital communication it is a different ball game altogether.

All it takes is an angry customer’s blog post, video or incriminating pictures posted online and within minutes damaging information can go viral reaching stakeholders, customers, prospects and investors. Social media has given gasoline to the spread and intensity of such information. Like a well lit stage in an amphitheatre, the spotlight immediately shifts to how you will respond to the barrage of questions, criticisms, responses and opinions strewn all over the internet about your business.

As more and more people are turning to social media to voice their opinions about everything; Government and business policies, product experiences, criticisms and reviews, there are important lessons to learn. Businesses need to learn to listen and monitor online conversations as well as how to deploy the right resources in order to provide accurate perspective and  a genuine response to customers while avoiding a potential public relations crises. Where else to learn from than an organisation whose work is to save lives and respond to emergencies? For Kenya’s Red Cross Society (KRCS), timely response is not a matter of profit – it is a matter of life and death. Looking back at how brilliantly KRCS  handled the spotlight during the tragic Westgate Mall siege in Nairobi  a lot can be learned about using social media for responding to emergencies.

I was guest to the great guys at the 2012 edition of WordCampKE in Mombasa, Kenya where I spoke about Social, Local and Mobile for Brands and Bloggers and had the opportunity to learn from my rafiki Phillip Ogola, who presently leads the social media team at Kenya Red Cross. During his presentation, he spoke about how he is using social media to monitor and respond to crises in emergencies. In a nation with a high number of socially connected youths, the Kenya Red Cross has become a powerful rallying point for monitoring, rallying support and responding to crises and emergencies.


Credit_Valerie Hamilton_iBe there before Crises –The people stuck in the Westgate Mall readily turned to social media when they needed to call for help. A large number of hostages flooded their personal Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts with updates, images and information calling on people outside for help, relief and support. In a CNN report written by Daudi Khamadi Were of Ushahidi, information about the attack first broke on social media. If there was any up side it was that the Kenyan Red Cross had been preparing for the unpredictable for well over a year. Already monitoring the social web for crises alerts, the social media team at Kenya Red Cross became the go to source for real time updates, quickly alerting volunteers, fire brigades and police to arrive at the venue of the crisis.

THE TAKEAWAY For businesses, if you are not prepared before social media crises happens, you will be the last to hear about it. Businesses should create notification systems that alert them to public responses on various issues surrounding their company, policies, practices and products. If you are not responding to service requests you not only are damaging your company’s reputation, you risk the issue going viral. Several online tools can be used to alert you about issues that match your identified key words and phrases even before the whole world latches onto it.

Credit_Valerie Hamilton_iHave a central Operations Center –Using information gathered through tweets, Facebook messages, or text messages, Ogola’s team scans social media platforms for alerts and information about fire, accident or civil unrest and sends that information to first responders. During the Westgate mall attack in September, Phillip Ogola was credited with the tweet that confirmed the attack, a 140 characters of critical information which is said to have reached an estimated 50 million people. Since Kenyans on Twitter have developed a strong enough relationship with the @KenyaRedCross, it was just common sense that people tweeted the organisation for help or as Valerie Hamilton put it, where there was no 911 Kanyans tweeted for help. Having a command center to track reports across devices and platforms, KRCS was able to rally support from volunteers and first responders alike.

THE TAKEAWAY Being present on social media requires more than the set it and forget it approach that is common these days. Companies need to invest the resources, develop a team and create a comprehensive system to respond to the public. Companies should ensure all of their departments have at least a basic social media response strategy. Social media is not for marketing departments alone and consumer inquiries often require the expertise and services of a variety of departments . Organisations like Dell International, GTBank (Nigeria) and Safariom (Kenya) have invested a lot of resources to ensure they are present on social media and are able to deliver on their brand promise in this new digital economy.

Event tracking using Hashtags(#) Hashtags are used to collate keywords and phrases on social media platforms and was very instrumental in rallying conversations during the Westgate attack. Hashtags work by allowing anyone sharing content on a relevant topic to add a #hashtag label to their message thus allowing users to contribute and track conversations around a particular topic. This powerful feature first became popular on Twitter and is now being used by Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Google +.

THE TAKEAWAY Hashstags were instrumental in providing minute-by-minute updates from people in the mall, outside, in homes, even with those deploying emergency resources inside and around the crises area.  Several hashtags were used especially #GodBlessKenya, #WestgateAttack, ,#WeAreOne, #RedCross, #RedCrossKE even after the crises period.

#iVolunteers: It pays to build a tribe #ivolunteers was not an event hashtag, it was used to build a tribe. Way before the Westgate attacks, iVolunteers was the initiative used to raise citizen emergency workers for the Kenya Red Cross. The idea was simple; there was a need to verify who was reporting an event, there was a need to identify if volunteers were around the crises area. A campaign was run earlier to recruit iVolunteers and they became a wonderful resource to pull from especially when there was a need during the crises to create an awareness campaign for blood donation.

THE TAKEAWAY Every brand needs advocates online. If you jump online without building a relationship with the virtual community, you will have a lot of work to do in terms of crises. When things are going well  you need to build your community of friends, fans and followers. These wonderful pool of people will readily spread updates from your company to their personal networks; they can rise to your defense when the need arises, they can solve customer enquiries on your behalf, they can decrease your marketing cost and multiply your reach. Every brand should strive to build a virtual community for its loyal users, subscribers and fans; in the long run, it pays.

Traditional media will play catch-up – for free  The amazing display of online collaboration and comradeship among the digitally empowered Kenyans is a lesson for all. Once social media began buzzing with updates of the events, traditional media could only play catch up, tuning in online for breaking updates. Several news sites all over the world ran stories about the siege and continue to talk about how effectively Kenyans used social media to get word out about the crisis. CNN even featured ireports from citizen journalists highlighting the Kenya Red Cross’ ability to update disaster partners and volunteers about the needs and requirement of those directly affected.

THE TAKEAWAY It is becoming normal practice to balance digital and traditional media for communicating business value. However using social media has become normal practice for entrepreneurs as they can now use social media with the hope that traditional media will catch up on it if the content is remarkable enough.

Businesses are already coming to terms with the impact  of social media on traditional business practice. The real challenge is how and if the business community  is willing to take the necessary steps required to truly connect with their target market online. It’s a fact that social media marketing done right works and helps companies develop platform required to continually generate remarkable content. Social Media is no more a ‘nice to have’ for businesses, it’s essential. Ready or not,  your customers now have the power and tools to communicate and spread their views about your products and services.

Deola KayodeDeola Kayode manages Teleios Consulting, a Brand Strategy and digital communications consulting company based in Lagos. He blogs on branding and social media marketing for business on You can find him on twitter giving advice and tips on social media strategy for business at @delola

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