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In light of Canada's mobile-enabled and social media savvy populace, news of breaking events and crises are reaching us faster than ever. In response, brands, public figures and individuals are responding to these events just as quickly, in a way never before possible. Commentary and official responses are no longer restricted to scripted statements and non-personal public announcements; rather, it's the short, often heartfelt tweets and posts that are making their way into the news cycles.

A recent shooting on a streetcar in Toronto demonstrates this changing crisis communications environment. Responses from Karen Stinz, chair of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), and Brad Ross, communications director, were filled with compassion and understanding. Instead of informing the public about the tragedy with a purely facts-first, neutral tone, these spokespeople took to social media to express their personal reactions to the tragedy.

Another example of the changing landscape came following Calgary's devastating floods. Mayor Naheed Nenshi responded with concern and compassion through social media. As shocked citizens were looking for signs of hope, Nenshi used Twitter to reach out in a neighbourly way, encouraging Calgarians to stay home while the damage was assessed.

In the past, those messages would have been delivered in a an impersonal press conference setting, delivering a scripted message to the masses. By using social media, Nenshi came across more as a caring citizen, looking to lend support to those in need. The necessary flood updates were still delivered, but his personal touch ignited a stronger emotional connection and a voice and a face to the tragedy.

When Lac-Mégantic was struck by a disaster of their own, news of the train derailment spread quickly throughout Canada. The accident left the community – and the country – devastated. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, Justin Trudeau immediately flew to Quebec to show his support in-person, while also offering his sympathies via Twitter. His timely and consistent responses allowed comfort and condolences to spread as fast as the news itself.

Beyond breaking news, brands are also using social channels to add a personal touch to difficult customer service situations. For example, after a recent (and witty) customer complaint made its way to Twitter, Purolator saw the potential PR crisis as an opportunity. The company's communications team responded in a timely fashion, on the same public platform that the customer was complaining, and with the same humourous language that was used by the customer. As a result, Purolator was able to leverage the situation to offer customer assistance while also positioning themselves as a company with a sense of humour and the ability to converse with consumers on a personal level.

Social media and breaking news can no longer be separated. Technological innovations have enabled the public to document and share breaking news, a role once held exclusively by traditional media. Because of this, spokespeople and brands are beginning to see the opportunity and value in responding to crises with humanity and sensitivity. While there will always be a place for well thought out crisis communications plans and formal communications and updates, there is an opportunity for brands and public figures to bring a more personal, human voice into the discussion.

Mia Pearson is the co-founder of North Strategic. She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing communications agencies, and her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle.

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