Timeliness: the key to managing social media in a context of safety emergencies

ISSN 2369-873X

18 February 2015
Posted by: Geneviève Corbin

When people think about social media, information sharing is often the first thing that comes to mind. Of course, social media platforms are used to share information, but isn’t it also the main purpose of multiple communications tools like news websites, email, telephone, or fax? So why does the TSB use social media?

Well, social media is different because it allows you to reach a very large number of people in a very short amount of time. In one click, it can take your message on a journey far away from home, and that, from a strategic communications perspective, is very appealing. However, in order for social media to be effective in delivering key information in a relevant way, it needs to be managed with one thing in mind: timeliness.

When a transportation accident happens, whether it’s on the East coast or in the Rockies, the news usually spreads quickly across the country. That’s why, when we deploy investigators to an accident site, we need to quickly provide the facts to the media and the public, at a national and sometimes even international level. People want to find out what’s going on and what’s being done. Normally, the media will get the story out in a timely manner, and that means that we have to monitor what’s being said on social media, because that’s often where stories get posted and shared first. As the federal organization with the mandate of advancing Canadian transportation safety, we want to provide first-hand information to avoid misinterpretation and confusion.

How do we do that? We sit on the edge of our seat, and we work as a team, from coast-to-coast-to-coast. Constant communication between the people at head office and the investigators being deployed on site is one of the key elements. From the time investigators leave the office to the time that they get on site, there needs to be ongoing communication to ensure that everyone has the correct information on hand.

Once the information is confirmed, that’s when social media comes in. Thanks to the timely collaboration of TSB people across the country, the deployment notice issued by the media relations team gets shared with our 10,000+ Twitter followers (English and French combined), and is likely to get retweeted multiple times.

In addition to Twitter, the TSB uses Flickr as an important social media tool, to share photos of accident sites and other TSB events. Again, it is crucial that photos get posted as quickly as possible to provide a visual context of the occurrence site, considering that public access is always restricted. That being said, we also need to ensure that we select photos that are sensitive to any loss of life or serious injuries. While helping people understand what we do as an investigative body, we have to deal with the fact that our field of work can unfortunately imply victims. We must therefore show respect in all forms of communications—social media included. Since accidents usually get described with abstract or technical terms such as runway incursion, collision at level crossing, or loss of propulsion, we provide visual support to help people understand exactly what that means.

Aerial view of derailment site near Tellier, QC
(site could not be accessed for over 24 hours
due to risk of landslide)
Aerial view of derailment site near Tellier, QC

However, it’s not always easy to publish content in a timely manner. For example, investigators may not have access to the site if there is a fire or safety concerns. Also, if the accident happened in a remote location with no internet connection, it’s hard for the investigators to send their photos to the communications team in Gatineau, QC. Factors like those can definitely delay the process of providing relevant visual information. And since we can’t control them, we do our best to work around them.

In an organization like the TSB, there is no calendar listing of upcoming accidents. They’re unpredictable, and when they happen, a significant part of the organization needs to go into “accident mode” and deal with the information as it comes in, even if it’s dark outside and everyone else is asleep. Thankfully, social media is an information-sharing tool that can easily be accessed and allows us to publish content in a timely manner, even outside business hours.

Image of Geneviève Corbin

Geneviève Corbin is a Strategic Communications Advisor at the TSB. She has worked in various communications related fields within the public service, and has committed to a serious and permanent relationship with her smart phone. She’s an avid runner, a wife and a proud mommy.

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