[On Facebook Messenger: Friday, November 13, 2015 approximately 4:00PM EST]
Me: Are you safe?
Daughter: Yes, why?
Me: Where are you?
Daughter: At a restaurant having dinner in Montmartre (part of the Right Bank section of Paris, a few km from the attacks). My phone is going crazy. So many people are texting me. There are sirens. And helicopters. What happened?
This is a parent’s worst nightmare but this was the conversation I was having at the end of my work day on Friday, November 13, 2015 with my 20 year old daughter who had just arrived in Paris. She is studying abroad this semester in London and was meeting up with multiple groups of friends that were studying in Florence, Barcelona, and Paris for the weekend.
Me: Bombing and shootings in Paris. Turn on your GPS, go to your Airbnb, shelter in place, call me when you get there.
It was a long 15 minutes before I heard from her again, and fortunately my daughter was safe. It makes you realize what can happen in the blink of an eye, and our hearts and prayers go out to all Parisians. In that first 15 minutes, and until my daughter navigated her way back to London, my automatic reaction what to go into crisis communications mode – something that we do on a regular basis for my Red Javelin clients. But this time, it was much more personal.
Family and friends repeatedly expressed their amazement at the technology I used to help my daughter and her friends during the crisis. Like many of you, I take it for granted because I work with technology daily. But most of the people I spoke with stated, “I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
I want to share my experience on how I used social media during a crisis so that if you ever find yourself in this situation, you can use the technology you have at your fingertips to quickly gather the information needed to make informed decisions.
Five years ago many of the tools that I used did not even exist or weren't being used enough to make a difference. It is truly amazing at how far we have come in such a short period of time.
So, what do I mean when I say lifeline? Well, think of all those television shows that you have watched where there is some type of field operative, usually CIA or MI5, and then there is an analyst back at the home office gathering “intel.” In this case, my daughter was “in the field” and I was the “analyst” back in the home office.
The information I gathered during this process was instrumental at getting her out of Paris safely and quickly. It was also empowering to have technology and information at my fingertips so that we could collectively plan a course of action. Having information at our fingertips empowered us to make a plan in a crisis situation.
Before you go
Always travel with a phone that can make cellular calls and has data service and have a portable charger for your phone. A working smart-phone and the Internet is needed. It may cost you an extra $50 or $100 for additional services during your trip but it is worth every penny if a crisis arises. A portable charger like this can be a lifesaver if your phone battery is running low and an incident unfolds. This can be purchased on Amazon for less than $20. I picked up mine at a tradeshow as a giveaway.
Assign a family spokesperson: As soon as the news broke on television, our phone starting ringing with concerned family and friends inquiring about our daughter. My husband fielded all the calls while I set up a social media “command center.”
Twitter: Twitter is the social media channel of choice to learn about breaking news – all news outlets use it as well as the citizens on the streets. You can receive news as quickly as it happens and without filter which is important. I started by searching on the hashtag #breakingnews to quickly determine the hashtags that were being used. I followed these six Twitter feeds; #Paris, #parisshooting, #parisattacks, #eurostar, #airfrance, #cdg (Charles de Gaulle Airport). The first three gave me news from the street while the second three gave me information about the ability to leave Paris. This was extremely effective in learning about the scope of the crisis as well as gaining information that was useful in helping to make alternative plans. For example, we learned that the Metro was still closed on Saturday morning however the Eurostar was keeping a regular schedule. This was not what was being reported by news outlets.
Facebook – Facebook was indispensable. We used Facebook Messenger as well as Facebook audio chat all night long to communicate. Facebook’s “safety check” let my daughter and her friends quickly notify their school, their school friends back in London as well as their friends and family back home that they were safe with one click. Thank you Facebook for a wonderful tool.
Airbnb Rocks: My daughter and her friends were staying at an Airbnb rental that provided a superb WiFi connection that was included in the cost. This connection was key. They didn’t have to buy an expensive Internet package like they would have if they stayed in a hotel. The quality of their Internet connection was very strong – far superior to what you normally would find in a hotel. In addition, the apartment made them virtually anonymous during this crisis so it was unlikely that they would not be a target if they sheltered in place. It was reported that some hotels locked their doors for safety reasons as the crisis unfolded…that made me wonder if they could have been locked out if they were staying in a hotel and did not return quickly enough.
Video Chat: During the course of the evening my daughter and her friends “unraveled” at times especially when ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks. They were only a short distance away from the center of the events so the sirens, helicopters as well as people shouting in the streets could be heard all night. It escalated their fear. Can you blame them? We used Apple FaceTime and it was very helpful to see them and for them to see us as we worked our way through this. Nothing beats a face-to-face conversation – even using a computer.
GPS: I asked all the kids to turn on their GPS on their iPhones – locations services under the privacy settings - just in case something happened and we needed to track them down. It gave me a small piece of mind knowing that they could be eventually be tracked if necessary.
Google Maps – We used Google Maps to figure how they could get to the train station in the event that they couldn’t get a cab and had to walk.
During the night – and it was a long one - we came up with Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C. At 8:00 AM in Paris, it was time to try Plan A and it worked like a charm. Within the hour, I received a message “on Eurostar, already outside Paris, will arrive in London in time for brunch.” They were easily able to catch a cab, and walk right onto the Eurostar – it was virtually empty. Most tourists were holed up in their hotels and believed that they were unable to leave Paris because the news outlets reported the borders were closed and never mentioned that the Eurostar and Air France were running on schedule. We learned about that through social media.
We are fortunate to have our daughter safely back in London where she is continuing her studies and pray for the families that have been affected by these tragic events.
Having information at your fingertips and the ability to throw out a lifeline to family, friends, and colleagues can help turn a potentially panic inducing situation into one where the parties involved can focus, make informed decisions and seek safety.