Communicating during the Boston bombings: How the Boston PD schooled us on social media

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Cheryl Fiandaca was at the mall with her niece April 15, 2013, when her phone started going nuts.

It kept ringing but dropping every call. Finally she learned that two bombs had gone off in the Boston Marathon, which her sister happened to be running in.

Thus began a crisis of the sort no communicator wants to handle. Three people were dead, more than 260 injured, some severely maimed.

But the tragedy offers lessons for communicators seeking to navigate the storm of a crisis, Fiandaca says in a Ragan Training video, “Communicating during the Boston bombings: How Boston PD schooled us on social media.”

In this session, you’ll learn how to:

  • Set up your social media infrastructure
  • Handle a flood of media demands
  • Work with other agencies
  • Get accurate updates out—fast

When Fiandaca got the news of the bombing, she took off in her car, talking on her phone. Her niece fielded her second phone, and texted a statement as they drove. First responders needed to get to the scene, and her niece tweeted, “Updates to follow. Please clear area around marathon finish line.”

Some lessons of this horrific crisis:

Learn to set up your social media infrastructure. Moments after bombing, so many people were on phones, the service went out, Fiandaca says. The Boston Police blog crashed.  The only way to let people know what was going on was through Twitter. But even when the social media assets were back up, the PD had differentiated its platforms for different uses.

“We had the infrastructure set up before the bombing,” Fiandaca says.

Double-check. With journalists and private citizens tweeting every rumor, Boston PD did not want to add to the confusion or have to correct statements later. That may seem obvious, but double- and triple-check news to prevent over-eager internal sources from feeding the media some rumor you’ll have to correct.

“Not only would I call the commissioner, but I would also call the head of the detectives,” said Fiandaca, who had previously worked as a journalist and has since returned to broadcast reporting. “I would check in with four or five people to make sure we were all on the same page.”

Update regularly. Things are going nuts on Twitter. Citizens are tweeting photos of SWAT teams and naming their tactical locations. Keep people informed—and calm.

Boston PD had conference calls every morning and afternoon to make sure everyone was on the same page. It was essential to tweet updates on the manhunt and public safety announcements, but you can’t forget others. Boston’s hospitals were crowded with victims, and the police initially didn’t know if the suspects might be among them. So it stationed SWAT teams at the hospitals. Communicators from the hospitals called and frantically asked, “What do we do? What do we tell our patients?”

Shrink the stage. Don’t let politicians overwhelm law enforcement press conferences.

Remember that the good guys sometimes prevail. Boston PD made this announcement on Twitter: “CAPTURED!!! The hunt is over. The search is done. The terror is over. And justice has won. Suspect in custody.”

November 2013

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Presenter bio: 

Cheryl Fiandaca, a Boston-area journalist, is the former bureau chief of the Boston Police Department's Bureau of Public Information. She acted as department spokeswoman and was responsible for all media relations and internal communication. She also managed the flow of information during Boston Marathon crisis using social media to communicate directly with the community and news organizations.

Cheryl is also an award winning broadcast journalist. She began her career in New York at WABC-TV and later moved to WCBS-TV. In 2009 she headed home to Boston and joined WCVB-TV, News Center 5, as a reporter.