When a shipping incident occurs, we turn to social media to keep us informed; abreast of developments, and allow the many to comment and speculate on the topic.

When on the 13 January 2012 at about 9:45 pm, in calm seas and overcast weather, under command of Captain Francesco Schettino, the M/V 'Costa Concordia' struck a rock in the Tyrrhenian Sea, just off the eastern shore of Isola del Giglio, off the western coast of Italy about 100 km (62 mi) northwest of Rome, the accident became the locus for well over 250,000 social media comments and opinions.

Those various social media platforms when aggregated provided a comprehensive view of the story as it ebbed and flowed online.

People now turn to social media to find out the latest thinking, rumours and in rare cases, hard facts without the filter of the news organisations.

As an example, friends and family of ship crew and passengers used Facebook as a means to share the names and pictures of the loved ones they were searching for. One trapped passenger, named Rose, even shared her own plea for help while she was still on board the sinking vessel.

She wrote: "My name is Rose, it's Friday 13th and I'm one of the last survivors still on board the sinking cruise liner off the coast of Italy," she wrote above a photo of herself stuck in the dark on the ship before she was airlifted to safety.

Twitter was probably the pre-eminent platform used throughout the search and rescue phase and was constantly updated with pictures and news as it happened, keeping those ashore informed as they waited desperately for news.

Despite the gradual sinking of the ship, its complete loss of power, and its proximity to shore in calm seas, the order to abandon ship was not issued until over an hour after the initial impact. Although international maritime law requires all passengers to be evacuated within 30 minutes of an order to abandon ship, the evacuation of Costa Concordia took over six hours and not all passengers were evacuated.

Of the 3,229 passengers and 1,023 crew known to have been aboard, 30 bodies have been located, and two more passengers are missing now presumed dead.

The friends and families of passengers who were on board the capsized Italian cruise liner also turned to social media to vent their mounting anger and shock at the incident as the TV pictures beamed to a watching world the dismal mismanagement of the evacuation.

Those tweets have been reposted and retweeted by their thousands, and, at the time, left the mainstream media completely left behind.

The sheer volume of tweets and posts were staggering with nearly 35,000 references at one point at just after midnight on the evening of the incident.

Twitter posts over 90 hours

Twitter posts over 90 hrs

A social media gathering organisation gained the following 'themes' over the first three days of the incident, measuring thousands of 'tweets', and cross cut by their sentiments.

Themes within social media conversations

These themes then, when converted to a word cloud, show clearly the public mind-set and their concerns.

"My cousin and my niece are still among the missing... someone said they were airlifted out but there are no traces...please let me know if you've seen them!" wrote Sabrina Ottaviani on a Facebook forum, above a photo of her relatives.

In London, a broadcasting city and known for its maritime experience, didn't fare very well either. A key breakfast talk show on the BBC was only able to raise the father of a dancer on board the vessel, and a retired LNG Master to talk about passenger shipping at short notice.

The self same British dancer who worked on the cruise liner used a social network to urge people to pray for her before she was rescued. A special Facebook page dedicated to the Costa Concordia was created.
Social networks were buzzing with reaction to the disaster with vituperative criticism aimed at the Master, Captain Francesco Schettino, who was subsequently arrested on suspicion of multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning the ship before evacuation was complete.

"Shame! To abandon the ship! Shame!," became a strident cry on one platform, whilst others, fewer, formed a group in the captain's defence.

Twitter users at the shoreline and on board were posting the latest photos and videos of the vessel and keeping track of developments in the rescue. The timeline accrued from this tsunami of information allows us to track individual passengers and lifeboats.

A video of people waiting to be rescued, filmed by a passenger and instantly posted on news sites and social networks, brought web users closer to the sheer panic felt on board.

Almost immediately, as if held together by some link, previous passengers of Costa Cruises began sharing their experiences of previous voyages. Manna from heaven for a hungry news media seeking another voice or face.

But how did Costa fare on Twitter? Very, very poorly.

Note the first time the incident is mentioned is in response to a sympathetic note to Raul Schramm, a low key Italian twitterer on the 14th January 2012, several hours after the ship grounded.

Costa on Twitter

By later on the 14th, the Costa corporate grip on events is falling apart.

"Costa has not issued a statement about casualties yet' & "Try calling 800-62-6782' for friends and family'

Such trite statements suggested their corporate communications function, like the ship, had also been holed beneath the waterline.

Costa on Twitter

By the 17th Costa had given up posting anything of relevance as the Italian Administration and Police had clearly taken the lead.

Twitter Costa

Twitter also played its part in sharing information that previously would have been lost in the general welter of media. Snippets that in turn were picked up by the general media and turned into on-camera stories. Here are four examples:

Other Twitter users

Like a car crash in slow motion, it just got worse for Costa. But this time in beautifully clear audio.

Released with exquisite timing, the authoritative voice of the Italian Coastguard official Gregorio De Falco commanding Schettino to return to his ship was played out on radios, tv and the web in all news broadcasts, pushing his reputation deeper and deeper into the murky waters.

Instantly an Italian web site selling T-shirts emblazoned with the terse command "Vada a bordo, cazzo!" issued by Mr De Falco earning fame for his terse, and getting even worse, rebukes to the mumbling responding Schettino. The command translates roughly to "Get back on board, damn it".

In the United States, a national newspaper headline reprinted those words in 48 point.

Indeed there is so much material available from passengers and bystanders that a documentary broadcast in the United Kingdom, titled Terror at Sea: The Sinking of the Costa Concordia, and another first broadcast on 11 April 2012 on Channel 4, titled The Sinking of the Concordia: Caught on Camera, just featured footage filmed by the passengers and crew.

The Costa Concordia story is clearly going to be lecture material for years to come, especially relating to disaster preparedness stories and in the use of social media. This disaster particularly highlights new problems for shipping companies attempting any sort of damage control.

Juicily, and played out in the tabloids, a Facebook posting by the relative of a crew member was one clue that the deviation from the cruise ship's planned route may have been a deliberate 'drive-by greeting' attempt by the vessel's captain after his pleasant dinner with Domnica Cemortan, 25, from Moldova, who was working as passenger rep for Costa Cruises.

As one journalist said to me at the time: "I would have paid gold to have a picture of the two of them together being evacuated to the lifeboat at the time." The mainstream media was catching up.

The camera phone photos and videos of the sinking is really pretty new to the corporate damage control scene and companies need to catch up and raise their game.

Most companies are not prepared for a social media crisis; reading up on how to handle social media will help you formulate questions for your senior management and colleagues on how you should react.

Lessons to be learned from Costa

  • Emergencies are no time to develop basic listening skills. Start now.
  • If your shipping company earns the reputation of being a good listener who takes care of its customers, you'll have a backup reservoir of trust to tap into when the crisis hits.
  • Beforehand, look for channels to use for crisis outreach. Where does your shipping community hang out: Twitter, Facebook, or on industry forums? Also identify and build relationships with key influencers who can amplify your response.
  • Social media can alert you to potential issues before they escalate. For example, community news sites around your facilities could help you prepare for the storm that will delay fresh fruit getting into Antwerp or automotive parts to South Africa.
    You'll be able to warn your customers of impending downtime.
  • Monitoring social media can shut down many crises before they get off the ground. You can deal promptly with an upset customer or rogue employee before the issue gets posted on an influential blog.
  • During a crisis, monitor relevant conversations. What kind of volume and sentiment are you dealing with? Which people and which sites are critical of your brand? Knowing about the 5,000 angry posts on your Facebook wall - do you have one? - will help you respond quickly and sensitively.
  • Monitoring social media will help you see the crisis from your customers' perspective, shaping your language and adjusting your priorities.
  • Don't stop listening just because the latest crisis has passed. You need to be aware of unresolved issues and lingering frustrations that need to be fixed. Don't just passively listen: ask.
  • Monitor social media for sentiment around your shipping company, comparing levels before, during and after the crisis. Is your share price beginning to rise again? If not, why not?
  • You'll find your community will be very understanding about your brand, and even make excuses for you, if you're apologetic and transparent throughout. Tell your shipping community what you've learned from the crisis and what you're changing in response to it.
  • Finally, open up and ask your customers for their ideas. Listen for their insights into how your brand can make them happy again.
    Listening can turn a crisis into a bonding experience with your customers. If you bring your customers into the circle, they'll feel like this is "our crisis" instead of just your crisis (or worse: just theirs.) After all, what better way to build lifelong trust than spending some time in the trenches together?

No one ever wants to imagine needing a plan for something as tragic as the sinking of a cruise ship, but in the brink of a disaster, having a plan for such an emergency makes dealing with social media outrage or heartfelt condolences easier.

Costa Concordia has a big job ahead of it building confidence in its brand - regardless of what polls and industry professionals declare.

Mark Clark

Director of Navigate Response