On March 15, 2018, a pedestrian bridge collapsed on the campus of Florida International University (FIU), killing and injuring several people. It took only minutes for social media trolls to begin feasting on Munilla Construction Management (MCM). The accident was a painful reminder of the new risk social media can present for contractors in the wake of a publicized construction accident regardless of whether they have an active presence.
What impact will these social media attacks have on MCM’s reputation, the morale of its current workforce, its ability to attract future employees, and its ability to bid on and win new projects? These are serious questions. What’s most concerning is the contractor’s reputation was damaged before the cause of the accident was even determined.
Bridge Collapse Triggers Social Media Outrage
From a social media marketing standpoint, Munilla was in all the right places prior to the accident. The firm had an active presence on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.
When the bridge dropped on March 15th, the response on social media was instantaneous, especially on Twitter, which is a fast-moving, 24/7 platform. It’s important to note that while Twitter is effective for business users, there is a very active contingent of trolls that incessantly tweet about taboo issues such as politics, race, gender, etc.
The trolls organized their attack related to the bridge collapse primarily under the hashtag #FIUBridge. Most of the comments were inaccurate, biased, and toxic. MCM was accused of rushing, cutting corners, buying local politicians, and even colluding with members of the Trump Administration.
The contractor took the high road, refusing to engage with social media trolls. This was a wise choice. The trolls on Twitter are especially fierce, relentless, and have plenty of time on their hands to launch attacks.
MCM’s Public Relations Crisis Response
MCM made all the right public relations moves shortly after the bridge collapsed. They issued a professional and heartfelt statement to the press, posted it to their social media pages, and even plastered it across the home page of the website. MCM extended its PR efforts by refuting the various claims made by the media. Click here to read those statements.
The trolls took the fight from the #FIUBridge hashtag directly to MCM’s social media pages. The contractor posted on Twitter that its website was down because of heavy traffic. Once the media revealed MCM’s identity, the curious masses launched a Google search.
The Washington Examiner reported that MCM unexpectedly deleted its Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts on March 19th. It’s safe to say that the contractor was overwhelmed by the trolls and decided to call it quits. Can you blame them?
At the time of this writing, the only presence they kept was on the most professional of the bunch: LinkedIn. Not surprisingly, the comments there were professional, supportive, and clean.
Anyone Can be a Reporter
The FIU bridge collapse reminded us that anyone with a smart phone and a social media account can be a reporter regardless of his or her qualifications. They posted graphic photos and video clips of the bridge collapse and the carnage that followed, in addition to live reports from the scene.
There was a time where a contractor could better control crisis response, focusing on dealing with the local media, but those days are over. Your construction projects are now occupied by dozens, if not thousands, of armchair reporters. The big difference between these “reporters” is not just qualifications, but bias.
The Construction Marketing Straight Talker touched on this trend in 2017. Make sure to revisit “How to Protect Your Construction Brand When a Jobsite Accident Hits the Internet: Parts I and II” for more information.
No Objective Reporting on Social Media
While history suggests that bias has always existed in the media, most reporters have traditionally strived for objective reporting. Armchair reporters are not subject to the same journalistic standards, of course.
When they report on a construction accident, they bring all their personal biases to the table. Perhaps they have a gripe with the project, your company, one of your employees, or businesses in general. Understand that there is a portion of the population that spends most of its time online trolling or trying to cause headaches for industry when the protest circuit quiets down.
People that read the vitriol trolls spread on social media don’t have enough time or concern to ferret out the truth. Because of that, the deluge of tweets and posts they see will hurt your firm’s reputation to an unknown extent.
The Rise of the Instant Expert
Social media has elevated the position of false experts and thought leaders. There were laypeople with no apparent construction or engineering backgrounds attempting to portray themselves as experts. Most of the real experts, including P.E.’s, reserved judgment until all the facts came in.
The army of trolls rallied when the media revealed that the bridge had been constructed using Accelerated Bridge Construction (ABC) methods. They took the name at face value and dumbed down a complex construction process to the idea that construction was simply expedited. Their conclusion, of course, was that MCM had rushed through the project and cut corners. This, they concluded, was one of the reasons the bridge collapsed. A similar situation played out related to the stress test that was conducted.
Unique Risks for the Construction Industry
The construction industry faces unique challenges on social media. Whether your firm is building a high-rise or a bridge, or imploding a building, there is a potential for catastrophic consequences that is unrivaled by most industries.
The work is often on a large scale, publicly visible and researchable. There are also people that believe contractors make too much money, pollute the environment, work unsafely, collude with politicians, discriminate against certain employees, etc. The list goes on and on.
These are not new issues, but what is new is the ability to make allegations publicly on a mass scale through social media. We live in a world where anyone can identify a target and launch an online attack on that firm’s reputation from the safety of his or her home or office.
Should My Construction Firm Be on Social Media?
The FIU bridge collapse was a stark reminder of the increasing risks contractors face on social media in the wake of a construction accident. So should you opt out altogether? Absolutely not. With that said, I don’t blame MCM’s for closing most of its accounts to shut down the trolls.
Make sure you have a contingency plan in the event of a construction accident or any other incident that might trigger public dissent. Understand that social media and public relations are now closely connected. Participating in social media requires risk management like every other aspect of construction.
The social media aftermath of the FIU bridge collapse also reinforces the idea that LinkedIn is the safest social media platform for the construction industry. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram can also be effective, but keep it strictly business and avoid the trolls. (Now is a good time to revisit “5 Reasons Your Construction Firm Needs a LinkedIn Page.”) MCM mitigated the risk to its reputation after the accident, but there was still damage done.
Accidents are a reality in the construction industry. Gone are the days when your biggest headaches were lawsuits, bad press, and accident claims. Social media is now part of the aftermath you need to consider.
What did you think of the social media activity related to the FIU Bridge Collapse? How would you have reacted if placed in MCM’s situation?
Whether you need help with social media marketing strategy or management, Fraley Construction Marketing can help. Click here to learn more.
Blog graphic photo courtesy of Reuters/Joe Skipper.