How Hashtags Created the New Rules of Crisis Communications

Who hasn’t wondered who posted the first hashtag? The story of the first hashtag isn’t particularly glamorous, but it is a story of persistence paying off.


The above tweet was the first post on Twitter to include a hashtag. As a co-founder of BarCamp, an annual conference for hackers, Chris Messina had been looking for the best way to create a group connection on Twitter for what had seemed like ages. Using the # sign before a topic made it easier for workshop goers to connect with each other.

The concept didn’t go over so well at first. Messina even approached the co-founders of Twitter with his hashtag idea, but was quickly sent away with not much more than a comment stating, “Hashtags are for nerds.”

Messina didn’t give up though. A few months after his first hashtag post, wildfires broke out in San Diego, California. When Messina suggested the use of the hashtag #sandiegofires to his friend who was reporting on the fires through Twitter, many people in the area started using the #sandiegofires hashtag to acquire important information about evacuation sites in the area. This was the first time that a large audience was able to actually see and be a part of using a hashtag to respond to a crisis situation.

Much to everyone’s surprise, six years later hashtags are central to the Twitter universe. Hashtags have also become an important part of every crisis communications situation, just as they were an integral part of dealing with the first #sandiegofires crisis.

Let’s take a look at an infographic that puts planning and managing a social media crisis in to perspective.


Planning for a social media crisis is just a important as learning how to respond to one. Melissa Agnes is the president of Melissa Agnes Crisis Management. She prepares national/global organizations and brands for crisis situations, as well as helping organizations reign in crisis situations that have already materialized.

Having a pre-determined hashtag strategy is something that needs to be organized before a crisis – and this goes for companies, organizations and schools, just as it applies to government officials and emergency responders. -Melissa Agnes

Making sure your brand understands the differences between an issue and a crisis is the beginning of being able to remedy both. Issues within a company can quickly expand into a crisis situation if not handled in a timely fashion. Issues may hurt your company in that specific moment, like pulling off a band-aid, but a crisis can wound your brand for life.


  • Have a crisis communication strategy that includes hashtags.
  • Monitor the conversation around your brand, using Hootsuite or other social media monitoring tools to stay in the loop.
  • If a problem arises, identify that your crisis is in fact a crisis and not just an issue.
  • Respond quickly. Ignoring the issue is not an option.
  • Let people explain their side of the story, but try to stay in control of the situation by having it on your turf, i.e., your Facebook/Twitter page.
  • Never get into a public tiff with users.
  • Take responsibility for your actions if your brand made a mistake. Users will respect your brand much more for being honest.

Best Wishes,




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