Blogging a crisis: reflecting on some lessons learned

afterwilmaThis is a story of a blog. It’s a story I really ought to have shared long before now, and I am truly thankful to my good friend Ron Mader for (politely) badgering me to tell it.

A long, long time ago (in internet time)… in fact, exactly six months to the day before the first ‘tweet’, a Category Four hurricane they inappropriately named Wilma slammed into the Caribbean coast of Mexico. In a matter of a few hours, most of Cancún’s resort beach had been sucked away and dumped on the sea bed. Serious stuff.

It was around midnight on Friday 21 October 2005.

Three weeks later, on 14 November in London, I spoke with Gabriela Rodríguez Gálvez, Tourism Minister for Quintana Roo, the state that is home to Cancún, Cozumel, and the Riviera Maya. As I wrote later…

We discussed the challenges ahead. I expressed my belief that traditional PR and marketing methods are losing their grip on customers as we take recommendations from each other.

Secretary Rodríguez seemed to agree, and she stated:

You cannot predict the future but you can be prepared.

“Definitely,” I nodded. So I encouraged them to start a blog. Tell people what’s happening, I said.

I wasn’t hopeful. I decided there and then to have a go myself (what was I thinking? I lived 5,000 miles away in the SW of England… or “Little Mexico”, as we like to call it). I even ‘mapped’ out some basic ideas on the train home after speaking with the Minister. I wrote down what the purpose of the blog would be, which would later become the about page when we went ‘live’ on 12 December 2005.

Four days later, Secretary Rodríguez was quoted in a CNN.com article as saying:

…it’s very important that the tourists know exactly the status of Cancún, because we don’t want them to expect something else and then have frustrated tourists.

No blog was forthcoming; just a megaphone. Wait for it: The Mexico Tourism Board pumped US$5m into a gimmicky glass-sided “Promobus” filled with sand, palm trees and bikini-clad beachgoers which roamed the wintry streets of 21 US cities, interrupting Christmas shoppers with the message “Cancún is open for business”.

Well, it was a plan. After all, they had always done it that way.

I got to work. I viewed every photo uploaded to Flickr tagged “cancun”, “playa del carmen”, etc., and invited people to add images to a Flickr group. I cross-checked the documentary evidence with the news I gleaned from hotel concierges or plucked from the wires. And yes, it became an obsession. Over the next five months, I estimate I dedicated over 500 hours to updating the blog.

And I guess that’s the first lesson: never ever underestimate the lengths that some people will go to collaborate with strangers to uncover the real story!

The blog became the only source of information on the beach reclamation project and you need only scan a few of these comments to see how keen people were for the clarity they were not getting from their hotel or tour operators!

So what else did we learn?

Now is too late

A big part of being prepared for future storms (or for that matter, any ‘crisis’ event) is to establish – in advance – the best way to inform people what is happening. This way, search engines will already have picked up the blog before any crisis kicks off. Speed is critical. Blogging in this context is a continuous record of facts and corrections of errors in near real time. Questions need answering quickly and accurately (truthfully) to slow speculation and knock down rumours convincingly. You can always add detail as it is verified. The State Tourism office went into damage limitation mode and instead relied on the webmaster to upload woefully inadequate information onto a web page.

In whom we trust

The ‘audience’ (I’m reaching for a better description) is integral to the story. How about inviting half a dozen smart people (who can write a bit) to blog through the hurricane season. Digital cameras were commonplace four years ago, but cheap point-and-shoot video cameras were certainly not. They are now increasingly ubiquitous. I can only imagine how this would have been amplified many times over had Twitter existed in October 2005,

Hello, is anyone out there?

I would have liked those working directly in the travel industry (hotels, tour operators, etc.) to have taken advantage of the blog – connected with it, and participated in the conversation. I was pretty well known to the Mexican tourism authorities, having been presented with a writing award by the Tourism Secretary in 2003. I contacted over twenty representatives in London and in Mexico. I met with a wall of silence. Not one reply. Not a single acknowledgement of what we were doing. Whatever you do, reach out to those who seek to be your advocates.

Head in the sand won’t stop the backchat

The job of PR was changing fast even back then. They can have a conversation with their customers – and potential customers – via comments and posts to bulletin boards. They can enjoy the value that comes from listening to what people have to say. Marketers need to understand that their job is more than simply ‘bums on seats’ and selling ‘product’. They are now marketing ‘conversations’, and they need to join in themselves. Participation is marketing.

Indulge me for a moment and allow me to use a travel metaphor: To fully understand the value and culture of social media, it is best to participate as a ‘traveller’, and not as an occasional tourist. It can be uncomfortable at times, but less so if you are well-prepared. Know before you go, and if the expertise does not exist in house, ask for help.

No news is good news… or is it?

Not necessarily. I recall one hotel which sent me a photo of some of its staff with their backs to the Caribbean Sea. I was able to locate a photo taken from almost exactly the same spot (on Flickr), but pointing in the direction of the hotel, which was badly damaged. Even those hotels which escaped with only minor damage, or none at all, should have said as much on their websites. Otherwise, we’ll just assume the worst.

In the words of Dan Gilmour:

Tell the truth. Tell it quickly. Tell as much as you can. People crave a genuine, human voice in times of crisis.

visitors

Thousands of people visited the blog. Very quickly it became clear that many were not going to be put off from travelling to Cancún for a holiday. I believe that this was the greatest failure of the travel PR people. They failed to grasp that by encouraging conversations about on-going developments (which was in fact largely a positive story following the disaster of Katrina), the blog meant that people travelled better informed and with sensible expectations. By their absence, the tourism authorities in this particular story turned a drama into a crisis.

So that’s the story. Nearly four years on, I remain enormously proud of what we achieved together. To be totally frank, looking back over the comments left on the blog brings a lump to my throat.

The web truly became social for me over those few months.

My only regret is that although I still visit Mexico (with family and my camera) every 18 months or so, I’ve not written a single article about Mexico since mothballing After Wilma. I’ve moved on, I guess.

Cue sunset.

Photo: Zanzibar

Photo (not one of mine) licensed under Creative Commons by Andrea Zanivan (who added many wonderful images to the After Wilma group on Flickr)
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5 Responses to Blogging a crisis: reflecting on some lessons learned

  1. Ron Mader says:

    Thank you, Steve, for sharing these insights.

    Visiting Cancun this very week, I am struck by the damage that is still visible. When afterwilma debuted, I like many others felt an affinity to the people afflicted by the hurricane. Like you, I thought there was that the window of opportunity was blown open by the storm and that perhaps we’d hear the story first-hand from municipal, state and federal authorities.

    The blog coincided with the rise of social media, showing how Flickr could truly be used in a collective manner. The photos were awesome and told a powerful story of crisis and recovery. But I wonder if the blog format itself worked. Would you have had better participation from authorities if it had been a wiki? (I think the answer is no, but I still want to ask that as a question.)

    It’s terribly frustrating being passionate about a place without the opportunity to engage in an engaging dialogue. Tourism officials continue to use the megaphone (whether it’s an actual megaphone or twitter) where what we crave is truly the human voice.

    Kudos to you and your family for allowing you to invest such time and heart. I empathize with your mothballing Mexico and consider that a possible option of my own.

    Ron

  2. CancunCanuck says:

    Hi Steve,
    Thought I would share here what 140 can’t do on twitter. The months after Wilma were some of the most challenging times of my life. Your work with afterwilma was greatly appreciated. Talking about Wilma now is almost like therapy for those of us that live here, it was a very traumatic and dramatic time. We witnessed the best and the worst of people, but in the end I am left with a strong sense of community, pride in the people of Cancun for pulling the city up so quickly and the strength to know that I personally can survive just about anything.

    We did start a group hurricane blog after Wilma, thankfully we have not put it to good use. We’ve only had some brushes with storms over the last four years, and I hope it stays that way for some time tc come.

    In speaking of social media, I was joking with my husband that I had better get a Blackberry or something to be able to tweet during a hurricane! No electricity, no computer, thus I really need that new toy. :)

    Thanks for the flashback post.

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  4. Steve Andrews says:

    Fabulous article, Steve. I had no idea you did this. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Steve Bridger says:

    Glad you liked it, Steve. Thank you.

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