social media case studiesWhen a gunman took three hostages at Discovery Communications headquarters (home of the Discovery Channel) on September 1, 2010, hundreds of news outlets reported the crisis.

Yet mainstream media was not the first to break the story. An employee inside the Silver Spring, Maryland facility took a photo of an armed law enforcement official using a mobile phone and posted it on Twitpic.

"Discovery Channel building" quickly hit the top of the Twitter trending list.

From this one “citizen journalist,” Twitter’s viral power took over. Within seconds, people were learning about the ordeal for the first time through the micro-blogging site. Before long, the “Discovery Channel building” became the top trending topic with “Gunman” not far behind.

That was just the beginning. The rest of the day and evening, employees largely chose social media to let their families, friends and fans know they were safe. Likewise, those families, friends and fans commented back by the thousands on Twitter, Facebook and the company’s blog.

“With a combination of corporate blogging and then using platforms to push the message out, we reached so many more people,” said Gayle Weiswasser, vice president, social media communications. “It’s a much more personal way to engage with and communicate directly with our fans. In a crisis situation, the speed and virality of social media just can’t be paralleled.”

Freezing Corporate Social Media

Working with the police, Discovery Communications quickly evacuated 100 children in the onsite daycare center and 1,900 employees minus the hostages. Hours later, the hostage standoff ended with all employees safe when police shot and killed the gunman.

Throughout the crisis, the communications team at Discovery carefully considered how to communicate with the public. They very deliberately chose not to post anything from corporate Twitter, Facebook and blog accounts.

“We were dealing with an irrational actor and a volatile situation, and we didn’t know if he was consulting any kind of online sources,” Weiswasser said. “We didn’t know what would provoke him further, so we wanted to be completely quiet across any official platforms.”

Organization: Discovery Communications

Social Media Handles and Stats:


Corporate blog

All network Twitter accounts: over one million

All Discovery network Facebook pages: 16.3 million fans

All Discovery network YouTube subscribers: 800,000


  • Discovery chose not to post on corporate social media accounts until the crisis was resolved. However, the company let employees inform their fans and followers that they were safe.
  • 50,000 viewed the company’s blog statement in two days.
  • Discovery reached employees and the public with news of the end of the standoff faster than traditional media could.

Free Rein for Employees

Meanwhile, Discovery Communications specifically chose to let employees tweet and post as they desired after evacuation. Thousands of tweets and Facebook status updates went out from employees about their whereabouts, safety and the safety of the children in daycare.

“People were posting once they had evacuated,” Weiswasser said. “We didn’t want to hinder that. Social media is the way people communicate today.”

“There was a lot of anecdotal evidence of people saying, ‘I saw your tweet and knew you were OK,'” she added.

Another employee shares that she’s safe, and updates her followers about the end of the standoff.

50,000 Blog Visits

After the hostages were free, Discovery collected all the facts before crafting an official statement on its blog thanking law enforcement officers and everyone for their concern.

Then, they pushed links to that message out through Discovery corporate Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as accounts for specific Discovery networks and shows.

“We really wanted to address people who had expressed their concern,” Weiswasser said.

Later, one of the hostages also posted his words of thanks on the corporate blog.

More than 50,000 people responded with visits to the main blog post in just two days, compared to 23,000 blog hits the preceding three months. About 19,000 of those visits came from Twitter, where thousands retweeted and posted @ replies.

People were tweeting about it so quickly that it was spreading the story faster than traditional media could get to it,” Weiswasser said. “It was a good lesson in how powerful social media is in spreading information.”

On Facebook, over 14,000 new people "liked" Discovery Channel, generating 222 comments to the status update that everyone was safe.

It was a level of direct interaction not possible just 5 or 10 years ago. Back then, Discovery Communications’ likely response would have been a press release – a one-directional message for the news media.

Instead, Discovery and its audience interacted with two-way dialogue on the blog, Twitter and Facebook. And the important announcement about the end of the crisis reached the public and employees faster than through traditional media.

Never underestimate the audience for something like this and feed that audience as quickly as you can without compromising safety,” said Weiswasser. “Social media provided a very efficient and quick way to deliver a personal message to the community very quickly.”

Employees gather in the atrium after returning to work (Photo: Ken Visser for Discovery Communications).

Crisis Communications Take-Aways From Discovery

No rogue posting – In a crisis, social media should follow in lockstep with your corporate communications plan. At Discovery, it meant corporate social media waited until the company was ready to make an official statement.

Tell your people – Give your audience – in this case, employees and the public – an official message as soon as you safely can. “Even we were surprised by the volume of interest in the content we were posting.” Weiswasser said.

Tap into the viral effect – Social media tools such as blogging, Twitter and Facebook all working together provided the fastest way to inform the greatest number of people.

Does your company have a crisis communications plan in place? How does social media fit in? Any firsthand experiences of social media helping preserve your personal safety? Let us know your comments in the box below.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Get Social Media Examiner’s Future Articles in Your Inbox!

Join 465,000+ of your peers! Get our latest articles delivered to your email inbox and get the FREE Social Media Marketing Industry Report (56 pages, 90 charts)!

More info...
  • Always compelling stuff Casey…thank you 🙂

    Clearly not a single part of the strategy was planned out (or could have been planned out) in advance. But lessons are real and beneficial to the rest of us.

    I like your Crisis Communications Take-Aways From Discovery. Here is my take on it.

    Discovery couldnt prevent people from posting. If there is a parent or a child that wants to let his/her family know they are OK in a life and death situation no corporate policy can stop it from happening. So in this regard, Discovery didnt have a choice.

    Discovery being a public corp didnt have a choice in terms of radio silence either. They went silent because the legal team has to review public statements before broadcast.

    Tapping into the viral effect seems little slutty and prob would have been really bad if someone died. It would have been considered in bad taste for sure. But since no one died they did tap into the viral effect. But I still thinks its little slutty 🙂

    I dont think our interpretations are contradictory btw…I just think that no corporate policy plan can prepare you for the unpredictable and in hindsight it may seem like Discovery did everything right but they basically froze and let things unfurl. But they had no choice in the matter.

    Sorry…i dont mean to go and on but if anyone wants to learn more about what Im talking about look up hindsight bias on google.

    Thnx again for yet another awesome post Case 🙂

  • It’s fascinating how social media is changing the way we communicate and live.

    I’m not sure I agree with Discovery’s decision to keep all corporate channels quiet, though. People expect something from them, and they could have posted information that would reassure their visitors without compromising the hostages.

    By being quiet, it’s as if Discovery itself had been hostaged as well.

    What do the others think?

  • Hey Lexi – My understanding is that the gunman was monitoring Discovery’s communication channels. I think I might have made them same decision to make the gunman think he was in control. – Mike

  • AD

    Again great kudos for social media, really it played vital role to keep connected people circus. It’s amazing one more story of social media.

  • caseyhibbard

    Thanks Dino! Just a few thoughts…

    I think what’s interesting here is the way and speed at which news breaks today. Because it breaks on social media so fast, people expect fast and regular updates, which the employees were able to send out in a new way. Now, they can update everyone that they’re ok with one post from their phones, instead of phone calls 5-10 years ago.

    I can imagine the situation could have been different though, if employees were trapped in the building for a while. Perhaps the company would have needed to keep a lid on outgoing messages so as not to reveal locations or add fuel to the standoff.

    I don’t see them as exploiting the viral effect for promotional reasons but to get their own voice directly out to the audience, versus being through a press release to third-party media outlets. In turn, the public could express their real relief right back in the form of comments, indicating they appreciated it. Before social media, neither side would have this direct, unfiltered interaction.

  • @OKSPRA and other school PR tweeps… is Twitter part of your crisis communications toolbox?

  • Jeff Domansky PR

    Great post & analysis Casey. In this type of crisis, Discovery was right not to “officially” Tweet. Imagine the outcry if some of their communications caused a fatality? The challenge is that you can’t DEPEND on Twitter or Facebook channels in a crisis although they can help deliver your official warning and wrap up statement. Social media can’t do it all and can sometimes be unreliable. It is useful strategically but applying it still takes good judgment and experience in my view.

  • Very interesting, thank you for a great post.

    When do you think we will witness mainstream media turning away from its old ways and fully embracing new ways in which we, the audience, interact and help shape the story?

  • I think it is happening right before our eyes now

  • Thanks for the comments, everyone. @Jeff – you are right – we didn’t post officially during the crisis because we were taking direction from law enforcement, and we didn’t want in any way to hinder the ongoing police efforts. It was an extremely volatile situation and we had no idea which sources, if any, the gunman was consulting. Our first priority was to get the hostages out safely and to evacuate the children and employees without incident.

    Gayle Weiswasser, Discovery Communications

  • of course Social media “provides a very efficient way to deliver messages to the community very quickly” , we all are witnessing about this , very good points !!!! but i do think DC did help twitter too 🙂

  • I think that was a smart move by Discovery to give their employees that free reign to do as they please after the evacuation. Too often organizations would have put limits on their employees which could negatively affect morale and make their employees not trust their employers.

  • Great post.

    In case you’d like to probe further one element of the Discovery situation, check out my post last month on “The pros and cons of Citizen Broadcasting” (in my view, a better title than citizen journalism). Here’s the link:

    I’m going to link your article to that post. Thanks.

  • caseyhibbard

    Hi James,

    Thanks for your comment and linking to the story! I like “citizen broadcasting” as well.


  • A simple yet very powerful example born through a realistic situation experienced by very ordinary! yet powerful people. This is what i like to term as collective positivity through mainstream media. I am confident the outcome of the situation would have had a negative history if not were for the quick and instinctive thinking by those who held the strongest cards of the day. A victory for us all to celebrate and look back on for years to come.

  • Pingback: 41 Best Twitter Tips From Top PR Pros - Public Relations Public Relations()

  • The discovery just did what they think is applicable in the situation. News can’t be stoppered now a days.Pictures could be uploaded in seconds then everyone else would know what happens.

  • Pingback: Social Media Trends – Using Social Media in a Crisis | Strategic Driven()

  • Pingback: As a journalist, you don’t have to ‘like’ social media - Online News Association()