Only two weeks into 2018, and we have the first crisis communication case study of the year courtesy of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and its false tweet to residents across the island chain warning of a “ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii.”
The January 13 early-morning false alarm had families panicked, saying their goodbyes as they sought shelter from this doomsday scenario. After the threat was discovered to be false, government agencies and the media did all they could to inform people that this was a false alarm. Unfortunately, it took an excruciating 38-minutes to inform the public via text that it was a mistake.
Apparently, since November the agency has been practicing its Cold War-era nuclear warning sirens and online alerts amid growing fears of an attack by North Korea. It was a drop-down issue on a computer program and the employee mistakenly hit the “Missile alert” button instead of “Test missile alert.”
From a crisis communication perspective, here are a couple of takeaways from the incident:
Build stop-gap measures in your crisis plan
The good news is that the state has enough forethought to test the system, making employees comfortable with how it works and their roles. This is invaluable in case of a real crisis.
Also, despite the awful outcome, the agency is now able to build in some stop-gap measures to ensure something like this does not happen again, specifically protocols to immediately correct the error and a couple more steps to take prior to a message being sent out. Ideally, this would have been done beforehand, but it’s not clear that anyone could have thought of this in advance.
Ensure collaboration across teams
While there were snafus with the text alert system, the emergency agency was able to use Twitter to correct the error 13 minutes later. It’s not an ideal fix since since the initial message went out via text, but served as a good tool to reach many people at once.
The incident forced the issue with a variety of local, state and federal agencies, all of which are now working on plans together to shore up the warning system.
Prioritize timely, public responses
It took five hours before the Governor of Hawaii held a press conference to try to explain the issue, which is about 4.5 hours too long. Granted it might take time to gather information, getting out in front of it quickly with statements and promises for regular updates as information was uncovered could have lessened the reputational damage.
Coincidentally, Japan’s public broadcast system sent out a similar false news alert that North Korea had launched a missile, and citizens should take shelter. In this case, it took five minutes to correct it.