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How the Howard County police used social media to control the news after the Maryland mall shooting

It’s no secret that social media has changed the way we communicate. It has also changed the way that we, as consumers and community members, get our information. I recently read a stat that New Yorkers received tweets about an earthquake 30 seconds before they even felt it. I believe it. For better or for worse, news spreads instantaneously through social media.

Much of what we talk about here on The Hub relates to the marketing of your business through digital strategies. However,  as businesses and organizations, we also need to be paying attention to how social media plays a crucial role in crisis and emergency communications. 

Last weekend, my hometown experienced a tragic event that no community should ever experience – a shooting at a public place. On Saturday, January 25 at 11AM, shots broke out at a mall in Columbia, Maryland resulting in three deaths. As you can imagine, the news spread instantaneously through social media.

As the day progressed last Saturday, I paid close attention to the stories, and watched as rumors and speculations spread through social media and unconfirmed reports. I watched as witnesses contacted news outlets through social media, and I watched the media share unconfirmed reports of the situation. I watched the frustration of the police chief as he conveyed the official news during their first press briefing just hours after the incident. 

And then, I watched as the Howard County Police and Government officials took control of their news through social media. During their second press briefing, which many TV media outlets covered live, the officials told everyone to follow the Howard County Police Department’s Twitter and Facebook accounts for official updates. In turn, the media was able to pull timely information and report it back to their viewers. Community members began sharing the same information. And over the next 24 hours Howard County officials gained control of their news.

For communication pros, long gone are the days of issuing official press releases and waiting for the information to get covered in tomorrow morning’s paper. We HAVE to embrace social media and use it as a tool in these crisis situations.

If the Howard County Police didn’t take control of the news through social media, speculations would have continued to grow and they could have found themselves in a communications nightmare. By embracing social media and releasing updates on the investigation as they happened, the officials helped the media tell the story through their 24 hour news cycle, and allowed the public partake in sharing that news.

Beyond controlling the tragic story, the Howard County government even used social media to create good news and give people something positive to focus on. By creating the hashtag #HOCOUnited and inviting the community to stand together and show strength, they built morale and gave people the opportunity to share stories which changed the focus of the conversation away from the investigation.

The Howard County Police can be found on Twitter here

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