48 hours to save your reputation? If you are lucky, you’ll get four

Take a look at this chart, it shows the Twitter life span of the
tube story that ran on Friday and is a lesson for any customer facing
organisation. When something breaks online you literally have 3-4
hours to get a handle on things.

As has now been widely reported, on Thursday blogger Jonathan MacDonald filmed a London Underground staff member
verbally abusing an elderly passenger after he got caught in the doors
of a train. By Friday morning it was on Twitter, we were indeed
tweeting about it ourselves in our office around 10-ish. By the time I left
work in the afternoon the story was staring at me from the front page
of the Evening Standard, complete with calls by London Mayor Boris Johnson for an investigation.

This and two other UK stories that appeared last week showed how
ordinary consumers online can once again make all the running and
change the news agenda within a number of hours.

First of all there was the Trafigura case where the Guardian was
prevented from reporting on an environmental scandal involving the
energy concern, despite the fact that it was the subject of a
Parliamentary question. Never mind, people on Twitter uncovered the
story themselves and by the end of the day the gagging order was
lifted. The Guardian itself admitted that Twitter had on this occasion saved free speech.

Then there was the Jan Moir column in the Mail hinting that Stephen
Gately may have died for ‘lifestyle’ reasons (despite the fact that the
coroner said he died of natural causes) and using it to make a comment
on gay marriage.

A number of bloggers like Malcolm Coles weighed in and urged people on
Twittter to focus their tweets on advertisers like BT and M&S, so
that they pulled their ads from the (online) page. And within a
number of hours, they did.

All these show why Twitter matters. The overall numbers on Twitter are actually quite low when you consider that there is a core of 5% of users who account for most tweets. But though your mum or the bloke down the pub is unlikely to be in that 5%, a lot of journalists and bloggers are.

In fact, a key misconception about Twitter is that it’s a place for
people to babble all day about what they are having for tea. Sure there is some of that, but as
David Bowen says in an article on online crisis management in the FT,
Twitter is ultimately a connector – a bridge to other media. News
breaks on there, it breaks fast, and people take it elsewhere. Ignore it at your

Media strategist Ben Kunz has run a similar analysis
on his blog of the story of the balloon boy in the States, something
else that went crazy on Twitter within a number of
hours. Ben makes the point that people who play it by the book and get legal, HR etc together will have missed the boat. Indeed, he asks would a
lot of organisations have even noticed what’s going on?

The FT piece says that you have 48 hours to restore your credibility as
after that people won’t visit your website to get your point of view.

Maybe so, but in terms of getting a handle on the story I’d say you
have four – if that. If something goes viral in the morning and if
you aren’t proactive by lunch, you’ve pretty much lost
control of what’s going on and you’re just left to firefight.

Who knows, the next time someone captures an incident similar to the
one Jonathan MacDonald did, they’ll use the live mobile broadcasting
platform qik (which works with a lot of smartphones), and people will be able to see what’s going on in your organisation in real time.