Handling Crisis Communication On Social Media - What We Can Learn From The Germanwings Case

Written by Alicia Schneider

Over the last years, social media has changed the way of handling crisis management and especially crisis communication. Nowadays, information as well as speculations are spread much faster and the online community might be quicker with spreading news online than any official source. That is the stage, where difficulties for crisis management professionals arise. Looking at companies affected by and dealing with a crisis, they should be the ones who are in control of the crisis communication. Bringing social media into crisis management, one can see that this adds a high level of complexity. The responsibilities and tasks of crisis communication professionals expanded. What used to be limited to press releases and news conferences has now increased to multiple channels, real-time delivery of information, user-generated content as well as user controlled messaging.

Clearly, social media are changing the way people communicate not only in their day-to-day lives, but also during disasters

(Merchant et al., 2011, p. 2).

In this post, I am going to address the question: How to handle crisis communication on social media? Looking at the Germanwings Flight 4U9525 crash, I will point out what we can learn from that case and how to effectively use social media for crisis communication.

 Communication Change

Publics show an increasing interest in the use of social media during crises (Jin et al., 2011; Veil et al., 2011). Information can now be accessed independent of time and location. The use of social media during a crisis offers opportunities for individuals to „push“ information to the public or „pull“ information from others as well as for crisis managers to provide real-time updates (Merchant et al., 2011; Gray et al., 2016). Through sharing informantion, such as images, texts, vidoes, and tweets, the society becomes part of the crisis response and communication network, rather than remaining „bystanders“ (Merchant et al., 2011, p. 2). Just looking at the increasing number of Facebook users shows the change in origin of communication. Social media platforms are where communication and relationships are actively happening. Online communities or hashtags are serving as communication platforms, that connect people and/or organizations with the same concerns, values and common interest in the exchange of information regarding a specific topic. Several platforms such as Facebook and Twitter served during receint crises as one of the main communication points. Considering the large number of friends and/or followers, group memberships and shared personal uploads each indiviual has, underlines the rise of a collaborative online community (Crowe, 2011).

Trust & Credibility in Crisis Communication

News that are spread through word of mouth are of extremely influential nature (Veil et al., 2011). Moreover, active social media or those who become active during crises tend to put their trust rather in user-generated content than in traditional and official media coverage (Crowe, 2011; Jin et al., 2011; Veil et al., 2011). The problem for crisis communication on social media is that it often remains crucial wether the information shared by individuals are accurate (Merchant et al., 2011). The almost uncontrollable spread of information can be problematic as some social media profiles might be anonymus and therefor untraceable (Gray et al., 2016). During a crisis, the information reliability is one of the major concerns. Besides the media coverage the organizations, companies and crisis communication manager involved and affected by a crisis should remain the most credible source of information.

Chances of Social Media in Crisis Communication

Effective crisis communication relies to large extent on agile responses and quick actions. Different technological development offer the opportunity to improve crisis communication, due to their potential for a wider information capacity and promptness in spreading information (Houston et al., 2014; Merchant et al., 2011). Withdrawing from social media is no longer an option, as online crisis communication will then continue without the statements of organizations or companies being heard. Twitter updates for examples have a rather short text format, what makes them easily found by Google search. Any individual searching for a specific topic will consequently often be pointed to Twitter communications under a certain hashtag. For companies and crisis communication managers it becomes more and more important to monitor tweets that are direct or indirect talking about their brand, services and/or products. Despite possible negative effects and complexity, embracing new media for crisis communication will rather compliment traditional forms than to diminish them (Veil et al. 2011; Merchant et al., 2011).

Implementing Social Media in Crisis Communication

Crisis management professionals must accept the impacts of social media and learn how to use those “new” tools effectively. In the optimal case, they should be the ones who are ahead of things and manage the crisis communication. From the point of view of companies and crises managers, the increasing inclusion of publics in crisis communication can have both good and negative effects. Negative effects could go as far, that they harm a companies’ and/or brands’ reputation.

Some of the recent crises have shown how quickly crisis managers can lose control of crisis communication on social media and consequently fail at crisis communication. However, such cases serve as instructive examples on how to NOT handle crisis communication via social media.

The Case: Germanwings Flight 4U9525

The crash of last years Germanwings Flight 4U9529 serves as one example how crisis manager can fail at effective crisis communication.

Key Facts

  • On the 24th March 2015 the Germanwings Flight 4U9529 (Airbus A360) was en route from Barcelona to Dusseldorf
  • At around 10:40 a.m. the plane crashed over the French Alps – the plane was deliberately crashed by the co-pilot
  • On board were 150 passengers, including crew members; there remained no survivors

Media Perspective: What happened within the next 48hours?

The plane crashed at around 10:40am and the first information on behalf of Germanwings came at 11:52 a.m. via Twitter.

Source: Twitter #Germanwings (2015)

Source: Twitter #Germanwings (2015)

In another tweet Germanwings states “As soon as definite information is available, we shall inform the media immediately” (Twitter #Germanwings, 2015) and points people to their website – so that they can monitor the website for more information about the crash. Obviously the airline cannot speculate on what exactly happened. Thus, their tweet providing general information and pointing people to their website is one the hand appropriate but on the other hand an information gap remained.

Source: Twitter #Germanwings (2015)

Source: Twitter #Germanwings (2015)

But the most problematic thing was, that shortly after Germanwings had pointed to their website for more information, the page was down – and remained inaccessible for approximately 2 hours. During that time Twitter and Facebook remained the only digital points to receive direct information from Germanwings.

  • Within the next 60 minutes: Several sources updated about the incidents. Flightradar24 for example quickly posted the flight path as a CSV file as well as GPS coordinates including a graph that showed the rapid descent before radar contact was lost.
  • Within 90 minutes after the crash: Airbus and Germanwings’ parent company Lufthansa retweeted Germanwings, confirming that the plane had been lost and publishing first acknowledgements.
  • Within 2 hours after the crash: Lufthansa and Germanwings changed their logo colours on Twitter and Facebook to grey and black.
  • 2.5 hours after the crash: At 1:30 p.m. Germanwings confirmed the crash –  finally it took more than 2 hours to confirm what had already been reported all over the world.
  • Within 3 hours: All online marketing was withdrawn from the websites.
  • After 4-5 hours: Germanwings’ website stabilized and was fully accessible again. Moreover, Germanwings and Lufthansa set up a telephone hotline support for relatives and informed about this service on Twitter.
  • Within the following 48 hours: The focus of actions was on supporting the relatives – Germanwings also stated this on Twitter and Facebook. The Twitter hashtag #indeepsorrow was used with for acknowledgements. On the 25th of March Lufthansas CEO Carsten Spohr gave a statement which was published on youtube and shared via different channels.

What went wrong?

Looking at the short-term media perception and Germanwings crisis communication on social media there is some critique to point out. First of all, Germanwing’s website was down shortly after the crash. Twitter and Facebook remained the only digital points to receive direct information from Germanwings. Once the website was down, the airline should have continued to inform the public via social media about what they know, or even about what they are doing to find out more.

While Germanwings was in the beginning only expressing speculations it took them 2.5 hours to confirm what had already been reported all over the world. Other sources instead provided more information than the airline itself, what shows a clear lack of quick responses and clarifications. The airline should be the main source to give credible and constant information updates.

Besides some obvious struggles within the first hours after the crash Germanwing’s overall use of social media for crisis communication was not a complete failure after all: live-streamings offered permanent updates, Twitter offered continuous updates and interactions and from a brand management perspective the graying of the logo has been a strategic step to express the companies sorrow for the victims and condolence for their relatives. 

What can we learn from this?

 An airline or any company in general that is facing a crisis should be transparent and communicative in the hours and days ahead. This for example could be in form of a special crisis communication team which is especially responsible to secure the information flow on social media. Considering the statements from previous literature and the “social-media-crisis-guidelines“ formulated by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) the following points sum up the key principles of effective crisis communication on social media: 

  • communicating promptly, openly and precise
  • monitoring statements from others on social media
  • being a credible source of information
  • seeing social media as a primary information channel, not just as something addititonal
  • providing information updates constantly

A crisis is never an easy task to deal with, but how people deal with it and communicate a crisis is essential. That the origin of communication has shifted from traditional media to social media is a fact that every company should consider when thinking about disaster preparedness!




Reference List

Crowe, A. (2010), The social media manifesto: A comprehensive review of the impact of social media on emergency management. Journal of Business Continuity & Emergency Planning, vol. 5, no.1, Available online: http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=d9ab4cc5-fe15-4560-b1b6-a8b91efdd2af%40sessionmgr103&hid=121&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=21482509&db=cmedm (Accessed 28/11/2016).

Gray, B., Weal, M. & Martin, D. (2016), Social media and disasters: A new conceptual framework. In, Proceedings of the ISCRAM 2016 Conference, Rio de Janeiro, BR, 22 - 25 May 2016, Available online: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/388762/1/Gray%20et%20al.%202016%20'Social%20Media%20and%20Disasters%20-%20A%20New%20Conceptual%20Framework'.pdf (Accessed 28/11/2016).

Houston, J. B., Hawthorne, J., Perreault, M. F., Hae Park, E., Goldstein Hode, M., Halliwell, M. R., Turner McGowen, S. E., Davis,  R., Vaid, S., McElderry, J. A. & Griffith, S. A. (2014), Social media and disasters: a functional framework for social media use in disaster planning, response, and research. In, Disasters, vol. 39, no. 1: 1-22, Available online: http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.ludwig.lub.lu.se/eds/detail/detail?vid=10&sid=d9ab4cc5-fe15-4560-b1b6-a8b91efdd2af%40sessionmgr103&hid=4210&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=25243593&db=cmedm (Accessed 27/11/2016).

International Air Transport Association IATA (2014), Crisis Communications And Social Media: A Best Practice Guide To Communicating In An Emergency, available online:https://www.iata.org/publications/Documents/social-media-crisis-guidelines.pdf (Accessed 29/11/2016).

Jin, Y., Fisher Liu, B. & Austin, L. L. (2014) Examining the Role of Social Media in Effective Crisis Management: The Effects of Crisis Origin, Information Form, and Source on Publics’ Crisis Responses. Communication Research, vol. 41, no. 1: 74-94, Available online: http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.ludwig.lub.lu.se/eds/detail/detail?vid=12&sid=d9ab4cc5-fe15-4560-b1b6-a8b91efdd2af%40sessionmgr103&hid=4210&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=93413782&db=a9h (Accessed 26/11/2016).

Merchant, R. M., Elmer, S. & Lurie, N. (2011), Integrating Social Media into Emergency-Preparedness Efforts. The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 365, no. 4, Available online: http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.ludwig.lub.lu.se/eds/detail/detail?vid=14&sid=d9ab4cc5-fe15-4560-b1b6-a8b91efdd2af%40sessionmgr103&hid=4210&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=21793742&db=cmedm (Accessed 27/11/2016).

Twitter #Germanwings Online (2015), available online: https://twitter.com/search?q=%23Germanwings&src=tyah&lang=en (Accessed 29/11/2016).

Veil, S. R., Buehner, T. & Palenchar, M. J. (2011), A Work-In-Process Literature Review: Incorporating Social Media in Risk and Crisis Communication. Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, vol. 19, no. 2, Available online: http://eds.a.ebscohost.com.ludwig.lub.lu.se/eds/detail/detail?vid=16&sid=d9ab4cc5-fe15-4560-b1b6-a8b91efdd2af%40sessionmgr103&hid=4210&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN=60538170&db=a9h (Accessed 27/11/2016).

Further Readings

PR Week Online (2015), Lufthansa. Germanwings darken logos on social media in mourning after crash, available online: http://www.prweek.com/article/1339923/lufthansa-germanwings-darken-logos-social-media-mourning-crash (Accessed 29/11/2016).

Social Media 4 Good Online (2015), Germanwings failed crisis communications, Available online: http://sm4good.com/2015/03/26/germanwings-failed-crisis-communications/  (Accessed 29/11/2016).

The Drum Online (2015), Experts applaud Lufthansas crisis communications approach, Available online: http://www.thedrum.com/news/2015/03/28/pr-experts-applaud-lufthansas-crisis-communications-approach-germanwings-disaster (Accessed 29/11/2016).