Minutes after the partial collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans last month, videos of the devastating accident flooded the internet. Using just their smartphones, bystanders captured the destruction and chaos that left three workers dead and 30 people injured. Videos and images from the horrific accident spread quickly on social media, from Facebook and Twitter to Instagram and Snapchat.
Partly because of the shocking footage, the incident quickly became national news, where the videos were replayed on news programs repeatedly throughout the days and weeks afterward.
The fast pace of social media has changed how construction companies need to respond to a crisis, said Anthony Huey, president of Columbus, Ohio-based consulting firm Reputation Management. It makes quickly communicating with the news media more important than ever to make sure the correct information gets out.
In fast-changing situations, platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram sometimes breed misleading and wrong information that often goes viral, said Huey, who has been helping U.S. contractors sharpen their crisis communications skills since 2004.
In fact, most problems Huey has seen in the dozens of crises he’s been involved with relate to misinformation that spread in the first minutes and hours after an accident. He tells clients to make an initial statement within the first 45 minutes to help "set the record straight."
Here is one example of a video that was tweeted by a bystander that quickly was picked up by the local news station:
Shocking video shared via @BrienFallon:— NOLA.com (@NOLAnews) October 12, 2019
As the under-construction Hard Rock Hotel in New Orleans collapsed, vehicles and a streetcar dodged debris falling down from the construction site as captured from inside a streetcar.
LATEST info from the scene: https://t.co/54kEXtzdMM pic.twitter.com/90Vd6lqoIJ
“If it takes several hours for you to get back to the media or update your employees, in that vacuum of silence people are speculating and misinformation is leaking out,” he said.
Perfect storm of events
An example of this, Huey said, is the day the newly opened Florida International University pedestrian bridge collapsed in 2018. Heavy equipment had to be moved out of the way to make room for emergency vehicles. As the operator of a construction crane moved the piece of equipment off-site, a bystander took a photo and posted it on social media.
The image was picked up by the Miami Herald with the headline “Crane operator flees scene.” Readers quickly jumped on social media to speculate that the driver might have had something to do with the accident, which was later proven to be false. The report also appeared in other local media outlets and as far away as the New York Post and the Daily Mail, a U.K.-based publication.
Huey said the case is an example of how incorrect information can quickly go viral and said the contractor and crane operator should have quashed the report when it first appeared. But no one from either company called the Miami Herald or took to social media to refute the story, he said. "To this day, it's still out there for anyone to see."
"Now [news] lives forever on Google."
Ohio-based communications consultant
Via photos and videos, social media can also record small problems and amplify them into big ones, Huey said. "In the past, if someone made a blunder on a jobsite and the TV news didn't pick it up, it would not make it into the public's awareness, but now it lives forever on Google," he said.
Patricia Kagerer, executive vice president of risk management at Jordan Foster Construction in Dallas, agrees, saying that construction firms of all sizes must have a process to monitor online comments.
"Old school thinking was to ignore it," she said, "but today that is no longer the case."
It 'won't happen to us'
The power of social media to amplify or distort bad news is just one reason why firms need to have a crisis communications plan in place, said Huey. However, a majority of construction companies don’t have one and prefer to think a major catastrophe “won’t happen to us.”
He looks at social media as a double-edged sword, one with the power to spread misinformation but also to create an opportunity for general contractors and subs to communicate to a large number of people very quickly.
Platforms like Facebook and Twitter offer potential benefits for promoting positive company news but they can also be drivers of bad news, making accidents seem worse than they are. Not having a plan for how to handle negative information on social media can impact future business, according to Kagerer, who helps to oversee the emergency response plan at Jordan Foster Construction.
"If you don't have a plan as to how to handle the fact that somebody's out there saying that your company kills people or if you're not even aware of it, it could cost you a potential job in the future," she said. "I can assure you that your owners are aware of it."
Communication best practices
Bethesda, Maryland-based Clark Construction has a comprehensive emergency action plan in place, according to Sara Guthrie, vice president of communications. She said while she hopes they never have to use it, the plan includes a communication protocol and process for responding to media inquiries. Spokespersons are determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the location and type of event, she said.
"When there is an unexpected event, it's important to make sure that there is a clear plan for notifying and coordinating with everyone involved — company leadership, the client, local authorities and the media," she said. "This includes clearly assigning responsibility for notifying and coordinating with each of those entities."
Because Clark's first priority is always the safety and security of employees, trade partners and the public, Guthrie said, company leaders want to make sure they are taking proper steps to communicate necessary information to those parties.
"When it comes to media relations, it's important that everyone involved understands the process for fielding and coordinating approved responses to inquiries so that they can respond in a timely manner with accurate information," she said.
The challenge for a large firm like Clark, which employs 4,200 people and has offices in eight states, is that employees are spread over many jobsites, which takes extra work to make sure everyone understands communication protocols.
"We reinforce the plan regularly with our senior leadership and ensure that our project management guidebook is updated with the latest approach," she said.
The company also developed a short video that is posted on its intranet to explain the process for responding to the media and established a media hotline to ensure employees can quickly notify a member of the communication team regarding a media inquiry.
Other ways that construction firms can be ready to respond to social media reports during a crisis include some of the following imperatives:
- Prepare a website in advance that can go live when needed and keep news of the incident separate from the company's main website.
- Keep reporters in the loop, Huey said, even with just minimal news in the early hours of an incident. "If reporters can’t get information from you, they will look elsewhere," he said. “They're not going to stop reporting on something just because you have no information for them, so give them some facts to use in their reporting."
- Use "buy time" statements that contain basic information and that let the media know that company representatives are working on getting answers to their questions, said Carla Thompson, senior marketing consultant for Zweig Group, an AEC consulting group, during a recent webinar sponsored by Engineering News-Record.
- Designate an employee to monitor the media for disinformation and quickly correct anything that’s false, whether in print, broadcast or social media. "The problem with social media is that what used to be just another channel for the dissemination of information like a TV station or newspaper or radio now has the potential to become a crisis in and of itself if it's mismanaged," Huey said. "Once it goes viral it's almost impossible to manage."
- Provide media training for employees, who are often the first line of information in a crisis. “If they complain about taking time out for training, ask them how they will feel with 20 to 50 microphones in their face," said Thompson.
- Make sure subcontractors and other partners are on the same page. Guthrie said Clark requires subcontractors to obtain company approval before releasing any information, statements or images to the media or on social media.
- Consider all the types of risks to a contractor's reputation. In her 20 years in construction risk management, Kagerer told Construction Dive, she typically sees construction firms only planning for two types of incidents: weather events and employee accidents. She urges companies to undertake a hazard vulnerability assessment to look at all aspects of risk, including issues like cybersecurity, worker strikes and construction defects. "What are any of the things that could harm a company's reputation?" she said.
- Realize that negative social media posts or comments don't always warrant a response. Kagerer recalled a disgruntled former employee of a contractor she worked with who posted many negative comments about the company's projects and leadership. The company was aware of the posts and its social media manager and legal and risk departments worked together to come up with a plan of action but decided not to respond because it would have resulted in a online battle with a potentially dangerous individual, she said. Instead they continued to monitor the remarks for a period of time until they stopped. "Instead of responding directly, the social media manager posted other stories on the company's feed that showed the company's positive culture, benefits, community outreach and happy employees," she said.
Costs vs. rewards
While developing a crisis communications plan can be expensive and time consuming, the extra costs and time are well worth it, experts say.
"Remember," Thompson said. "When stuff starts hitting the fan, that advance planning will help you navigate and survive. Hopefully it will work out like you hope your home or car insurance does, where you'll never need it."
Another webinar participant, Magnusson Klemencic Associates Senior Principal Jon Magnusson, an engineer who worked on the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and helped to respond to media inquiries, said he’s even seen companies emerge stronger after a crisis.
"Many clients judge a company more keenly based on how they behave when things go wrong," he said.