Manage Your Online Reputation When Disaster Strikes


What follows is a look into how the City of Troy responded to disaster with takeaways you can immediately implement in your own business for online reputation, social media and SEO emergency preparedness. Prepare now. Act later.

Over the weekend, our little town of Troy, NY got hit by Hurricane Irene. By the time she was in our backyard the category 3 had calmed to a tropical storm. We sustained strong winds, but nothing too serious. Or so we thought.

The real problem was the rain. Lots and lots of rain. It kept coming, but by the end of Sunday it started to slow. That relief was short lived. Soon after the reports began to roll in about a mudslide wiping out businesses, dams in danger of breaking, boats being smashed to bits and water filling our streets. As a community, we’d forgotten about the most dangerous side effect in a river district — surface runoff.

You see, Troy, NY is nestled in this beautiful river valley:

There’s Outspoken Media! Oh wait, it’s surrounded by rivers. :(

With just 4.69 inches of rain, this happened to the Hudson’s water levels with the worst of it peaking right now:

Disaster struck a community that wasn’t expecting it, but we had a secret weapon that kept us all prepared in the midst of everything.

Mayor Tutunjian.

If you’re a fan of Outspoken Media, how amazing the Troy Mayor’s Office is shouldn’t be a new discovery, we’ve already discussed how the Mayor uses social media better than 99% of us. We got to see this in full force yesterday, through the night and into today. It was incredible to watch Mayor Tutunjian so quickly disseminate vital information through his Twitter account and respond the community’s concerns. More important, when news of a voluntary (and potential mandatory) evacuation broke, it didn’t come from the local news, it broke on Facebook and was promoted through Twitter! Eventually news picked up on the story, but much later.

The biggest problem was that the community didn’t trust or understand WHY news of this caliber would break on Facebook. They were questioning the validity of the news and wanted proof. Surely government officials wouldn’t use silly social media sites to spread serious news. Who posted that evacuation notice to the City of Troy’s Facebook page?

Someone smart. Someone informed. Someone who is using every tool at their disposal to quickly and efficiently touch the people that matter.

Social media isn’t a passing fad. It has become a part of how we communicate and live. If the Mayor’s ROI is in gaining the trust of his constituents, I would like to think (anecdotally) that after his response to the flooding of our city his approval ratings just soared. Regardless of whether you understand WHO was posting to Facebook or Twitter, news broke faster through those mediums than anything else. Within minutes connected individuals were knocking on doors and telling their neighbors to move their cars to higher ground. The Mayor effectively mobilized a city by touching a few through social media faster than he could have by any other means. That’s amazing and we should be taking notes.

So, what can we learn from Hurricane Irene and Mayor Tutunjian about emergency preparedness for reputation management, social media or SEO disasters?

  • Gather your advisors and trust them – Build a network of consultants, agencies and/or teams you trust to give you the facts and act in your best interest. Sometimes that means not going after the biggest fish, but staying true to yourself.
  • Plan for the worst, hope for the best – You should have a plan in place *before* disaster strikes. Learn from the misfortune of others, because acts of god and awful things can/do happen. You cannot plan for everything, but try to picture the absolute worst case scenario. What would you do? Once you’ve envisioned it and thought through your options the unknown will feel far less intimidating.
  • Implement an early warning system – If you aren’t already using an online reputation monitoring solution like Radian 6, Visible Technologies, Trackur or even just Google Alerts, you should be. If you don’t have a way to gather news about your business, products or service, you’re acting blind. You might a disaster brewing, but you wouldn’t know it until it was too late. Don’t let this happen. Find a solution that is cost-effective and easily managed. Learn how to use it and start monitoring those mentions.
  • Mobilize early – When you discover something disconcerting, put your plan into action. You should have scenarios built out and based on your discovery, you or a member of your team will know what to do. This may be as simple as further monitoring or as complex as implementing a coordinated PR/ORM/Marketing offense. Get everyone that needs to be involved in those decisions together early. If it’s nothing, you’ll have some practice under your belt for when the proverbial sh*t does hit the fan.
  • Communicate frequently – If disaster really has struck, make sure you’re communicating with your advisors for the most recent insight, your team who should be implementing your plan and your community who *needs* to know what is going on. If you’re in charge, you need to be transparent, timely and available for questions. There is no role more important, it will gain your communities’ respect regardless of whether you have all of the answers.
  • Act. – I’ve already discussed the importance of shortening your OODA loop to gain a competitive advantage. The same is true when recovering from a disaster. The sooner you make a decision, the sooner you will be on a path to recovery. If you make a mistake, you’ll find out sooner if you act now, which gives you more time to recover. If you didn’t make a mistake, perfect, you’re on your way. This is vital. The number one way to fix a reputation management problem is to get back to business. We (people) have this incredible capacity to forgive when things return to the status quo. If you made a mistake, fix the problem, apologize and get back to work. The only reason we’re disappointed is because we were a fan to begin with.

Troy, NY will bounce back from Hurricane Irene. Eventually, these waters will subside and we’ll be sipping Guinness at Ryan’s Wake remembering when:

How will you survive your future online reputation, social media or SEO disasters?

UPDATE – For those wondering, Outspoken Media’s office doesn’t appear to be in any danger of flooding and all is well. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bridges into the city closed and water is still rising, so we’re working from home today. Business as usual, just don’t have access to the more office-y things.

Also, Lisa had a vacation scheduled for today, but camping doesn’t mix well with hurricanes. Instead she’s our reporter in the field. Here’s some of the aftermath around the Capital District:

Your Comments

  • Michael Dorausch

    That is awesome to see local officials so involved online. Here in LA, I’ve not seen much real activity other than from the fire department and a local community watch group.

    As far as our business is concerned, our plan of action is being reviewed, we can always do better.

    • Rhea Drysdale

      We’re fortunate to have a really social media savvy group of officials and locals. News travels fast. Sometimes that’s a good thing, other times it’s bad, but I’d rather be on notice than not. Wish more cities would embrace this. I feel like it’s happening, but slowly. Still in awe at how many people questioned the evacuation notice just because it was on Facebook!

  • Mike Roberts

    While I don’t live in Troy, I do live in lower parts of NY hit by the storm and commend the Mayor of Troy for his use of social media. When the earthquake reverberated up to NY we found info on twitter before traditional news made mention of it. When the storm hit, and power went out for many of us, it was Twitter and Facebook on our smartphones that allowed us access to breaking news and information. There was a time when radio was the means of emergency information (and it still can be for those of us with battery operated models) but it has increasingly been social media of late that has shown how powerful and useful it can be in these situations. (When your carrier has signal & your battery doesn’t die of course)

    • Rhea Drysdale

      Ha, good point about signal and battery. We had a small portable charger and batteries in case that situation did arise. Well worth the expense or use the car charge (assuming the car isn’t under water). :D

  • Jill Whalen

    If you’re looking for other good Mayor examples, Corey Booker, the Mayor of Newark, NJ is awesome with Twitter @CoreyBooker

  • Jenn Seeley

    Awesome post Rhea and an excellent example of how social media monitoring can help with risk management before you ever need to move into crisis management mode. “Prepare now. Act later.” We do this in so many other areas of our lives, such as physically being ready for Irene, so to parallel that with social media efforts is especially savvy (and timely, of course!)

    Jenn Seeley
    Community Engagement – Radian6

    • Rhea Drysdale

      Thanks Jenn. We use Radian6 with our clients. Historically a solid service. Impressed specifically with our amazing project manager, Patti Graham. She’s constantly working to get the job done for us. Love that.

  • chris harvey

    Rhea, i don’t disagree with your enthusiasm for the potential (key word) of social media, but i’m afraid this gush-fest is only half the story. what good is a Facebook post if: a) only a fraction of citizens know about the page, let alone subscribe to it, let alone even use Facebook or Twitter? and b) the page doesn’t clearly or convincingly identify itself as “official”?

    i was one of the posters who immediately questioned the provenance of the “mandatory” notice. it’s obvious from looking at the comment thread that most commenters also found it unclear, problematically unofficial, or of unknown authorship. the combination of the severity of the message and the informality of the context made the post alarming for the wrong reasons. i went to the City Of Troy’s website and there was nothing, no ticker, no active update field, no mention of Irene at all. a mandatory evacuation notice should come from an identified government source or other credible authority, and the public should be made aware of available channels for emergency information.

    there’s no doubt that the Mayor mobilized his team effectively with Twitter, and i’m truly grateful that he’s got a smart-phone and knows how to use it, but as a civic mobilization option i hope we have more inclusive communication strategies than unidentified posts on optional URLs.

    full disclosure: i am Rhea’s neighbor and i knocked on her door to recommend moving the cars, which is a suggestion i got from a good old fashioned phone call. just sayin’… ;-)

    • Rhea Drysdale

      Hey Chris, sorry for the delay, I actually wanted to collect my facts before responding, so I called up Jeff Pirro who is the Deputy Director of Public Information for the City of Troy. He’s going on about two hours of sleep, but took the time to speak with me about the concerns you expressed and those of others as well. Below are some of his comments, but these are not verbatim and are sprinkled with lots of my personal opinions.

      what good is a Facebook post if: a) only a fraction of citizens know about the page, let alone subscribe to it, let alone even use Facebook or Twitter?

      The Facebook page has 6,800+ fans. Jeff informed me that 75-80% of them are Troy residents (demographic info is easily accessed through Facebook’s analytics for pages) and the rest live around the Capital region. According to 2010 population estimates, Troy has about 50,000 residents, so the Facebook page has a direct channel to approximately 10% of the city. Yes, that’s a fraction of the city, but it’s a significant fraction that connects with arguably a vocal, active percent, because residents cared enough to become a fan.

      b) the page doesn’t clearly or convincingly identify itself as “official”?

      Can’t argue this point. It’s a sticky subject for the city with Facebook disputes in the past and concerns over who manages it. My understanding is that the page is technically managed by the City of Troy, but is still a general information page. If you do some digging you’ll notice that the contact info on the page belongs to the Mayor’s Office. The notes section reveals that the page is used often as a news feed for the Mayor’s press releases. I find it hard to believe that a Facebook page with 6,800+ fans would be posting an official press release in the middle of the night for an evacuation of the city without being connected to it. The problem is that I personally know who maintains the page and I trust that they are a direct source to the mayor. Not everyone knows this, so I agree, who manages the page can and should be more transparent.

      it’s obvious from looking at the comment thread that most commenters also found it unclear, problematically unofficial, or of unknown authorship.

      According to Jeff, the press release went out to their press contacts, but that doesn’t mean that news gets posted immediately. The Facebook page was the fasted way to post information, so it was published more than an hour ahead of any other major news channel or publication (from what I can find). Then the Troy Record posted the notice, but other news channels were still lagging. The concerns expressed about not seeing this notice posted on news channels fast enough to prove validity aren’t within control of government officials.

      As for the city’s website, it isn’t a CMS. Anything posted to the site needs to be manually coded and added by a single individual. That sounds like a horribly inefficient process to me and I’m pretty sure Jeff would agree with that. He’s said that what the city NEEDS to help communicate more effectively with the community is the following:

      • An email list / subscriber based newsletter – that’s $400/yr
      • An RSS feed on the city page – they just need someone knowledgeable enough to add this to the site since their FT person is maxed out
      • An overhaul of the website to a content management system – they’ve priced this out at $10k for the software

      I told Jeff that I’d love to help with this. I don’t personally have the funds or knowledge to setup the above, but I certainly have contacts I can turn to. It’d be great to see if we can help the city raise funds for the new site.

      the severity of the message and the informality of the context made the post alarming for the wrong reasons.

      I don’t know if we were reading the same press release. What was severe? The potential for a mandatory evacuation? I’ve lived through more hurricanes than I can count and have had to evacuate a half dozen times. Only twice was it necessary. The city has to make a call. They’re going to err on safety given the information they have at that time. With the Internet and social media (ironically), news can travel so quickly that what *was* valid from city officials 30 minutes ago may no longer be valid by the time a resident posts the latest hydrologic prediction chart.

      a mandatory evacuation notice should come from an identified government source or other credible authority, and the public should be made aware of available channels for emergency information.

      News spread fast enough that the original evacuation notice on Facebook now has 100+ comments many from residents and officials who keep posting news as it becomes available. In those comments you’ll see residents saying they discovered orders from Sage officials (who had to have received notice from the City), the Troy Record (who received notice from the City), firemen and police officers (who received notice from the City), Twitter and Facebook (updated by the City, mayor and other officials) and eventually, news stations (who also received notice from the City, but weren’t acting fast enough to satiate the needs of those who wanted instant news and turned to social media or their neighbors for answers instead). The City did NOT turn to social media as the only media outlet. The problem is that they turned to it so quickly, the community didn’t trust the news until it came from much slower news sources. By then reports were already changing and everyone had anecdotal advice.

      Where did the city fail?

      It’s my personal opinion that the Troy, NY Facebook page should be more clearly labeled as a government page or there should be a separate page just for media/safety updates.

      It’s the city’s opinion (per Jeff) that the website needs to be brought into the 21st century. It’s cumbersome and out-dated and limits the ability of the city to effectively disseminate information. They also need an email list where they can blast notices like this out to the community.

      Regardless, those would all be Internet-based forms of communication. If there are complaints about individuals not being able to access social media, those changes won’t make a big difference. It’s my opinion that local media outlets need to step up their game as well. Social media is beating them to the punch. I’ve spoken to the Troy Record about what it is and how to use it. Guess what? Many reporters don’t care or don’t have the time/patience to learn how to use it. Some do and they excel at it.

      We don’t all have TV or computers, but I’d wager that the majority of Troy has a mobile phone with texting enabled. Let’s setup some kind of SMS emergency notification system while we’re at it.

      ps – feel free to join us on the back porch for burgers and beers tonight, grilling late :)

      • Rhea Drysdale

        UPDATE – just spoke to my father who is a kickass fire chief in Jacksonville, FL… e.g., he’s prepared for hurricanes! He said the city should check out Reverse 911. They could coordinate a reverse 911 notice through the phone system which would call everyone with a specific message and evac routes.

      • chris harvey

        @ Tim, you miss the point completely, and caps are for suckers. it’s not about refusal to change, as a society we are obviously changing, unevenly, but surely. it’s about wanting a more discerning critique of what “social media” is and isn’t, or how it can work and also not work. In matters of civic emergency it doesn’t matter what your theory of the digital future is, the people should be able to find out what’s going on without belonging to Facebook. hell, half of the smartest people i know don’t even use FB anymore; they’re on to G+ or whatever’s neXt. @Rhea, you make good points and i appreciate your detailed reply, but Troy has a population of 50,000. Has anyone surveyed how many are on Facebook? i think my reaction to your article was triggered by what i took as a conflation of what the Mayor was able to mobilize on Twitter and the problematic post on FB, under the general advocacy of “social media”. from my perspective, the Twitter mobilization was genius but the FB posting was potentially dangerous. thanks for the invite, but i’ve voluntarily evacuated to higher ground in response to rumors.

        • chris harvey

          and Rhea those are GREAT ideas. that’s what this dialog is for.

        • Tim Staines

          I don’t miss – my device types my caps for me, it was a joke. It seems that any form of communication available would be the right form, no? You would have a valid point if FB was the only place the mayor put out the message, which is not the case as far as I can tell. Why poo poo it? I hate FB, but if 10 people in town got the message there first, it seems like a worthwhile 30 seconds of time spent to post it there to me. People did get the message without FB, and it’s just fine that some got the message with it too, don’t you think?

          • chris harvey

            @Tim, you are right, of course, everyone acted with the best intentions and admirably; sorry i come off kranky. i’m inherently skeptical of e-tool worship, but a conversation about what emergency preparedness really means is a good thing. when i saw the “mandatory evacuation” reference on FB, i was more dismayed by seeing it there than by the notice itself, which i instinctively questioned owing to its context. for EBS a cross-platform presence is the only online solution that makes any sense to me. reverse 991, SMS hotlines, and update links on the City page are great ideas. clarifying the “official” status of the FB page could go a long way too, but as a fairly active FB user i’m naturally aware of what FB is not and who is not there. it’s not a reliable EBS precisely because it has a casual randomness built into it and the user base is encouraged to exploit that to “personalize the experience”. i use it as a kiosk, but the blog-like structure makes it more like a river, and it gets flooded too.

      • Matt Varney

        I wonder what they mean by their ‘FT person is maxed out’. I’m guessing they can’t be a web designer because adding a twitter feed or a facebook feed takes all of 5 minutes. Heck, I could walk to city hall and help them if they wanted it.

        Also, their website does appear to have a CMS installed as there is a login page to it: They could have stopped using it though and changed to hardcoding.

    • Tim Staines

      I’m typing from an iPad and can still capitalize the first word of each sentence. Just sayin’ :0 This whole thing reminds me of my community association not wanting to put votes online. “But the whole community doesn’t use the Internet,” they say. No, but it’s quicker and easier for 70% of us and it will save the board from having to knock on 100 of the 150 doors. It’s a no brainer. People just don’t want to change, even if the world is changing around them.

    • Lisa Barone

      So because some choose to view Facebook/Twitter/social URLs as “optional URLs” (this number is only getting smaller, BTW), local government should ignore them even if they’re the fastest way to reach out to constituents in an emergency?

      Had you not knocked on Rhea’s door and asked her to move her car, she likely would have decided to do on her own after reading the Twitter and Facebook chatter. You made the decision based off an old-fashioned phone call (which you admit yourself is old-fashioned).

      See how they’re not mutually exclusive and different approaches reach different types of people?


      I totally agree that there needs to be better integration between all of Troy’s online properties, but it doesn’t discount their effectiveness simply because all of Troy’s eggs aren’t perfectly fitted in their baskets (yet). Troy will get there, but we can still highlight the small victories (and there were many victories here – in the sharing of information, in the communities banding together) instead of claiming the Mayor, who worked tirelessly through the entire ordeal on no sleep, was only catering to an ‘exclusive’ portion of Troy’s demographic.

      Through this ordeal and many others, Troy (especially the Mayor and Jeff Pirro) has proven how effective social media is in reaching and alerting people to what’s going on, when they need to know it. I think they deserve all the kudos in the world. I only hope the next administration continues what this one has started.

    • Sully

      As Rhea’s neighbor, are you an identified government source or credible authority?

      • Rhea Drysdale

        Psst… share your ideas here. Not everyone’s on Twitter. :P Would love to know more about how PSNH alerts everyone. My only concern is that it requires a landline? What about the folks that have abandoned those for cell phones? It’s why Verizon was just on strike. Less and less of the population is bothering to install landlines at all.

        • Sully

          PSNH (Public Service of New Hampshire, the largest electricity supplier in the state) does an AMAZING job of using social media for disaster notifications. No land lines here – all Twitter & web.

          During major outages, like those caused by Irene, they update regularly with what areas are being addressed and ETR (Estimated Time of Restoration). If your phone is smart enough to access the web, there is always their online map.

          Even better than just the broadcast messages is the ability to Tweet at them to notify that your power is out. Sure they have an online form & 800-number, but I can’t use the former and don’t know the latter. Plus, during a crisis they’re as active as @TroyMayor was over the weekend.

          Did I stir the pot with my comment? Yes, but Troy tried the traditional channels of alerting its citizens, but was able to get the message out faster (to 10% of the population) much more quickly via Facebook & Twitter.

          Furthermore, why doesn’t it have a government resource that tells me the news, why not just a trusted source (e.g. friend, neighbor, etc)?

    • Kim M.

      I’m not surprised that more than one person on facebook was confused by the legitimacy of the evacuation … because the only thing that spreads faster than information on the internet is idiocy (and maybe its first cousin, conspiracy theories).

      I agree that it should be clear that it’s the official page … but we’ve had this debate for a year now and just talk in circles. Anyone who saw the info on fb probably liked that Troy, NY page before Irene hit and *should* know it was legit.

      • Stray Farce

        I actually hadn’t seen the page until Irene hit, but I’m glad I found it. Having it legitimized as an official page would be a good idea, but I gave it the B.O.D. and accepted and appreciated the information provided.

  • james norquay

    Good post about the impacts of social. Only thing that I dont agree with is tthat people in older demographics that do not use twitter will miss the updates. sure twitter is great for gen y kids but older age groups will miss all the information. That is traditional media is the prefered media for this group.

  • juliemarg

    cSocial media is not just for youngsters. Did you see the twitter post from @michaelgass stating that 45-54 year olds tweeted more than average?

  • Stray Farce

    I really want to applaud Tutunjian’s efforts this weekend and into this afternoon. I kept hearing conflicting reports of road/bridge closings but I deferred to the Mayor’s word on what was going on because I trusted he was on top of things; posting pictures of the affected areas, getting word out to his constituents.

    I give the news outlets the benefit of the doubt that they want to check their sources before passing along information, which may explain why some information was posted later (or too late). But having the Mayor on top of things as an immediate source for information was a wonderful example of how local governments can embrace social media to their advantage and get word out to area residents in times of crisis.

    So, well done, Mayor!

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    Now that I live in small town America, I can no longer make fun of The Lisa or Rhea’s choice of locale. Especially since reading this whole write-up and follow-on comments. I only wish my town’s government was one tenth as savvy and up to speed on social media as Troy’s. Here, it’s pathetic.

    As though the entire city, (and every city around us, including OLYMPIA, the frakkin State Capital) were all 98 year olds sitting nervously by their crank-up telephone waiting for Myrtle the phone operator (who also happens to work at the General Store, conveniently where the bank of phone switches happens to be) to ring up everyone one at a time to report the latest news.

    Seriously – while I’d agree that the FB page should be clearly labeled (and in turn promoted as) an official Troy point of information, OMG how cool is it that someone was even up to speed to even consider posting info there? Because really. We really do live in a multi-touch-point world these days. Honest.

  • Angelos

    I don’t have the energy to deal with any of the arguments. But as someone without TV (and I didn’t have my battery powered radio with me, like a dummy), @TroyMayor and the Troy Facebook page were invaluable resources, the most real-time information I could get.

    I don’t care if “not everyone is on twitter/Facebook/whatever.” It’s 2011. The news media long ago proved themselves incompetent to cover anything of significance.

    Also, 10k? I can beat that.

  • 40deuce

    Wow! Great story and great advice.
    It seems like Troy was prepared and knew exactly the best ways to reach their key audiences and that’s good practice for any and all businesses.

    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos