How Twitter helped EUROCONTROL dispel the ash cloud travel crisis

By Marc Wright

On the 14th April 2010, Kyla Evans, Head of Corporate Communications at EUROCONTROL, arrived at the European organisation for the safety of  air navigation thinking that she was in for a quiet day for a change. The workload of the comms team had been particularly heavy as the organisation is going through a major change and restructuring, but that day was blissfully slow.  Yet nature had other plans; as Eyjafjallajokull pumped dense volcanic ash up into the atmosphere, a Southeasterly wind conspired to completely change her day.

“We got a message that there was a problem developing and called colleagues in CFMU – the part of the agency responsible for the flow management of flights over Europe – and heard that parts of the airspace were being closed down. 30 minutes later and the phones started ringing.  We had three lines into the press office ringing off the hook; journalists were calling any number they could find to get more information,” Evans recalls.

The Icelandic volcano had started a crisis that would eventually disrupt the travel plans of 9 million people around the world with over 100,000 cancelled aircraft and 77% of European airspace closed.

The crisis plan swung into action and the Press Office started to issue releases, staging regular conferences with their subject experts and working to keep the media informed.

But in another room down the corridor Online Communications Manager, Aurélie Valtat, realised that the website could not be updated fast enough to satisfy the need for information in a crisis that was evolving minute by minute.

“At lunch time I popped into Kyla’s office with the suggestion that I start tweeting updates. It was about covering the gap so we could respond immediately. Kyla agreed and I started to tweet about the situation.”

That morning Valtat had just 300 followers on Twitter. By the end of the week that number had climbed to 7,000. Her Twitter feed now has over 10,000 followers and rising. The Facebook page has gone from 2,000 to 4,000 members – representing all parts of the aviation community.

The evolution of social media at EUROCONTROL

EUROCONTROL had first put their toe into the social media waters in the summer of 2009, supported by DG David McMillan who was keen to start a blog. Valtat was responsible for managing their Facebook page and Twitter account, but the channels were a bit of a sideshow, attracting just 4 questions in the first 4 months. But once Valtat started tweeting ashcloud updates on http://twitter.com/eurocontrol, that started to change. Evans explains the strategy:

“We are part of the public sector and we need to be looking at new social media as part of being transparent. When the phones are jammed with 1,000+ calls a day with a constant stream of demands for information we need to exploit this new channel.”

So as the many press conferences were filmed each day, Valtat was there tweeting directly from the event using the hashtag #ashtag (what else!). This meant that she was posting information in real time which attracted journalists of the calibre of CNN’s weather anchor Mari Ramos as the tweets scooped even the Associated Press newswire.

“I could sum up very quickly the key points of a press conference in just three tweets, and our posts were retweeted immediately by interested parties. The journalists were really grateful. Often in a crisis you can get your head bitten off by the press, but we got some great thank you’s. The CBS Bureaux Chief tweeted, ‘We love you guys, you rock.’”

It was not just the media who were grateful. The general public were following in the thousands and Valtat was able to give advice to desperate couples who were trying to save the travel plans for their nuptials.
 
“We saved at least three weddings. I was even proposed to! Social media is very good for making communication human. We had a direct message from a Spanish airline thanking us as they were getting information faster from our Twitter feed than from their own air traffic control.”

Making social media work for an organisation

For Evans the key lesson learnt was about integrating the channels:
 
“It’s important to link with the traditional media function and others. When the crisis started we moved the traditional channels all into one office. In retrospect I would have made room for the social media channels as well; that integration took us a while to realise. You need to treat social media as part of your team.” 

As well as getting information out about the ash cloud, Evans had to protect the reputation of her organisation. Many journalists took the line that it was EUROCONTROL making the decisions, whereas it was the national authorities who were making those decisions.

“No one else has the overview that we have. But there is always the danger that the messenger gets shot. People started to wonder why airspace remained closed; they get angry and want to blame someone.  But we stayed honest and straightforward so when political party UKIP attacked us on their blog The Economist defended us on theirs.”

Ironically, Valtat’s assistant was stranded in Barcelona without an internet connection, so she found herself putting in 12 hour days throughout the crisis, and even longer at weekends.

“When you are tweeting to 10,000 it’s the same level of authorisation as talking to the traditional media. There is the odd sensitive political question but I would reply using one of the official statements,” Valtat points out.

The Twitter feed also attracted a large following inside EUROCONTROL as staff started to grasp the benefits of the new channel. As Evans explains:

“When we set up originally we had a lot of discussions about Twitter and Facebook and as in many more traditional organisations, there is some jump for these new tools to be accepted. Most of our colleagues had not thought about using Twitter, or thought it was something just for their kids.  Now no one questions its importance. The organisation is going through change so the fact that we did such a fantastic job – and got great coverage – has given a huge boost to our people.”

Although traffic to the EUROCONTROL website also jumped 5000% Valtat believes that a key strategy for new media is to get your stuff on other people’s sites – a technique know as donut marketing.  They had their website at the centre, but pushed content onto other sites, in particular YouTube where the first video footage of our press conference garnered 7,500 views.

Keeping comms human and authentic


So what advice would Valtat give other communicators thinking of using social media as part of their crisis communications?

“The secrets of success are to be there; to fill the vacuum and take part and be visible. Your messages have to be honest and simple. Don’t pretend you are something you are not. It’s important to come across as a fellow human being and not a faceless bureaucracy.”