Crisis Management and the Digital

Linea Hansen, Denmark, Ida Nordentoft Gustav, Denmark


When using digital spaces and social networking sites, we in the heritage world often tend to focus on marketing aspects. Digital is seen as a place for promoting the physical exhibitions and branding the institution in a positive way. But what happens if we have a crisis?

Theft, fraud, and accidents are—unfortunately—also a part of the museum world, and therefore it is necessary to address such difficult issues socially. Crisis management is no longer just about “handling the press.” It is also about conversation with “likers” and followers, search engine optimization (SEO), and the production of background information, which goes beyond the traditional, written press release.

We will examine and share experiences from three different situations in which social and digital crisis management became relevant to the National Museum of Denmark. In 2007, one of our national treasures was stolen. In 2011, it was discovered that a famous amber bear, believed to be prehistoric, was a modern fraud. And in 2013, one of our museums burned down.

Keywords: SEO, social media, crisis management, digital

1. Introduction

For every museum, a crisis can come completely unexpectedly like a bolt from the blue. Sometimes you may know a long time beforehand that a problem or threat is building, and sometimes you will not know anything before the crisis breaks out. In some cases you may even have the chance to break the bad news yourself, at least on some platforms. But often you will not have a clue what will happen—or when.

A crisis is defined here as a threat to humans, animals, or values at the museum or as a threat to the museum’s reputation. In the context of museums, libraries, archives, and galleries, there are many crises to learn from; some have been handled well in social media, and some have probably been a nightmare for the social media managers. At the National Museum of Denmark, we have had different types of crises over the last five years. In this paper, we will compare three crises and share our experiences from them, so you can start to plan ahead and manage crises as well as possible. We are of course hoping that you will never need the advice we give.

2. Be ready!

First of all, you need to plan before any crisis comes. It sounds so simple, but it is important to have a strategy. It can be simple and basic, but you need to know how to contact colleagues and who will do what. For example:

  • Make an updated list of phone numbers, so you can get in contact with colleagues fast
  • Decide who will take care of which platforms
  • Have a laptop, camera, and cables ready for a crisis (with an extra battery!)

If you do not have a tone-of-voice guide for your social media presence, make one for crisis management. It is easy to be formal and correct in your messages, but you might benefit more from being more personal and open (human, actually!) than copy-and-pasting from a press release. We will get back to the things to prepare at the end of the paper.

3. The classical approach

The classical rules about crisis management are:

  • React quickly
  • Convey a consistent message
  • Be as open and honest as possible

It is our experience that these rules also apply in digital communication today, but with a speed much faster than it was a couple of years ago. Open and honest might also be defined differently today, and a consistent message can also be a consistent presence. We will examine the three rules in more detail now.

React quickly

A couple of years ago, communication was more one-way than a dialogue; it was enough to write press releases as quickly as possible: that meant in a couple of hours, maybe even a day. The message was oriented towards the media, so we could talk with the journalists and write press releases. Quickly meant that we needed to have messages ready before the deadlines for print and broadcast. We had enough time to get facts right and prepare statements. The media then made sure the message got to the public. And even if something was slightly wrong, we could correct it the next day.

We do not need to point out that this is not the case anymore; our reaction time has increased dramatically in speed. Today we receive questions directly from the public on all kinds of platforms—for example, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Here quickly is a couple of minutes; reasonable is maybe an hour. You need to have a person online during a crisis, so you can manage and reply quickly.

Convey a consistent message

It has always been important to convey a consistent message. This can be done by appointing spokespersons in various cases. Today, one spokesperson cannot monitor and debate on all platforms. This makes consistency even more necessary, and it is difficult to avoid rumours and wrong information surfacing. That means that the communication employees must have even more ongoing contact during a crisis. Conveying consistent messages will help the public get the right information, but it will also diminish the chances that less-informed colleagues will accidentally spread incorrect information.

If you already have a presence on different platforms, it is also important to stay true to your usual tone of voice and ‘personality’; therefore, it should be the one(s) taking care of social media every day who write the updates during the crisis. They know how to handle the fans/followers/friends, and they know who are thought leaders, who is just here to argue, and what they expect.

Be as open and honest as possible

As a heritage institution, we have to consider the safety of collections and objects under and after a crisis, but the openness can have limitations. For obvious reasons we cannot reveal all details when it comes to security. In addition, it can easily sound like we are trying to hide something.

Being on Facebook and having daily conversations with our followers means that they expect a real human—not a corporate tone of voice—behind the messages. They are used to asking us questions and getting open and honest replies, but that can be difficult when we are in a crisis. Our messages during crisis have to have the same feeling of the person behind the messages, not a copy-and-pasted press release. In addition, it has to be clear that we do tell them everything we can, so they are the closest they can get to us, by connecting and interacting with us through social media.

Open and honest about what?

Usually in a crisis, you should be open and honest about these core information points:

  • Is there damage or injury to people, animals, or objects?
  • Has the incident/problem been dealt with?
  • What is being done to stop or diminish the damage?

This also applies to digital communication, but these messages will have different lives on different platforms, as you will see in the three cases.

4. Crises at the National Museum of Denmark

As Denmark’s largest museum of cultural heritage, we have a lot of departments, exhibitions, and activities—and this may naturally also be apparent when looking at a list of very different incidents over a period.

In the last five years, we have had both smaller and more significant incidents, but the following cases are those that needed crisis management:

  • Theft of the Golden Horns (2007)
  • Archaeologist attacked by wild polar bear (2010)
  • Vandalism of the Jelling Stone (2011)
  • Amber Bear fraud (2011)
  • Political debate on non-exhibition of scalps (2012)
  • Arson at the Museum of Danish Resistance (2013)

Reading the list, you could think that the National Museum of Denmark is a museum especially plagued by crises and drama. It is not. The list just indicates that sooner or later, all museums and heritage institutions will probably face problems in some form. In this paper, we will discuss the theft of the Golden Horns, the Amber Bear fraud, and arson at the Museum of Danish Resistance.

Theft of the Golden Horns (2007)

Image of the Golden Horns

Figure 1: The Golden Horns

The Golden Horns are a Danish national treasure and symbol—even though they are in fact copies. The original horns, which were from the Iron Age, were stolen from the Royal Art Museum in May 1802 and melted down. Despite the fact that these are ‘new horns,’ they are still a national treasure, and we have visitors coming to the museum just to see the horns.

On September 17, 2007, the two Golden Horns were stolen from an exhibition building in Jelling, Jutland. The building, which is part of the National Museum, is a visitor centre for the monuments at Jelling, which consists of a church, two burial mounds, and two rune stones. The monuments are on the UNESCO world heritage list and famous for the stone on which the Danish king Harold Bluetooth claims to be king of all Denmark and Norway and to have brought Christianity to the Danes. It is a very ‘historic’ place.

This second theft of the Golden Horns ended more favourably. Only two days after the theft, the horns were recovered, and so was a little amber bear dating to the Mesolithic period, as well as a golden neck ring from the Iron Age. Now you can relax and read how we managed to get through the crisis.

When the Golden Horns were stolen, the museum crisis team met immediately. In such cases, the director and the head of Press Relations usually form the core of a team with members that may vary, depending on the nature of the event.

We held a press conference to inform the media, so they could inform the public. In 2007 digital real-time communication was not an option for us. We were not on Facebook, and streaming was expensive and required equipment that we did not have. So we were available, meaning that you could call us.

At that time, the only digital platform we had was our own website, and there were few options for statistics. There was no Google Analytics and no focus on search engine optimization (SEO). We published five stand-alone press releases, with the exact same text on the Web as we send out to the press. This was done without editing for the Web, and without linking them together to optimize visibility. Publishing five different pages meant that they were competing against each other and the traditional media’s Web pages when searching, because we published the same thing we sent to them. This all meant a very low ranking in search results.

We did monitor Web media and blogs by setting up RSS feeds for relevant queries in order to be able to follow the development, but we had no idea what people wrote in forums around the Web.

Interest over time in Google Trends (for 'Guldhorn')

Figure 2: Search interest over time in Google Trends (for ‘Guldhorn’)

amber bear fraud (2011)

When the Golden Horns were stolen, the little amber bear gained fame, as it was part of the haul. The bear was dated to 7000 B.C.—in the Mesolithic period—and was presumed to have been worn as a piece of jewellery. The bear came to the museum in 1997 and had an unusual story, as it was said to have been part of the estate of a chairman of a natural history museum who had died in 1962.

When a matching amber bear came to the museum in 2010, it was clear that the small bear that had been rescued in the Golden Horns theft was a fake.

The fake amber bear

Figure 3: The fake amber bear

This situation was very different from the theft of the Golden Horns. When we found out that the bear was fake, we decided that we would actively break the story ourselves and contacted a journalist with an interest in the period and topic.

The story was then broken in traditional media—not on any of our own platforms. Exclusivity was the reason for this, and another reason was that at the time we were also busy cleaning the rune stones in Jelling, which had been subjected to vandalism.

The people who are connected with us online know that we are not flawless, but they expect the National Museum to be correct most of the time. If we failed to be open and honest about this story, it could have damaged the museum’s reputation considerably. Because we were well prepared and our curator dared to talk about the fraud, it ended as a story people remember in a good way. It also meant that a lot of visitors still come to see the fake amber bear.

For our own platforms, we made a video interview for our YouTube channel, and the video was featured in stories about the amber bear around the Web.

Search results for 'ravbjørn falsk' (Fake amber bear)

Figure 4: Search results for ‘ravbjørn falsk’ (fake amber bear) in Danish Google. The search is made in stealth mode and logged out of Google. It is a good idea in cases like this, when you do not want your search results to be “contaminated” by your own general search history.

As you can see in the Google search, there are no results from our own website. This is because we changed our website recently, and the amber bear story was not redirected. But our video is featured in the results marked in red. In the video, our colleague Peter Vang explains how he was fooled by the fake bear; the video has been viewed about 1,900 times. That is not particularly viral, but it is still interesting to notice a couple of facts.

Most of the views come from embeds and do not take place on our own Web page or YouTube channel. only comes in third. So the effort made to create sharable content has paid off.

The statistics from YouTube (embedded views)

Figure 5: The statistics from YouTube (embedded views). Our own website comes in third.

An interesting observation is, however, that today many media sites may not choose to embed your video. If allowed, they will download it from YouTube, frame it with their own commercials, and show it in their own player. This could be problematic for various reasons. First, it does not add to the value or visibility of the original video or the channel (yours) to which it belongs. Second, it disguises the fact that your content was (maybe) originally free and sharable for everyone.

In a time of crisis, you will need to determine whether to allow this or not. It can give your video more viewers here and now—but prevent it from being visible in the long run and for the long tail.

Being open and honest about the amber bear means that our followers online still tease us in a friendly way over the fraud whenever they get the chance. Being open and honest when you are wrong correlates with a trend like “flawsomeness” (being awesome just because you are not flawless), but it can be difficult to act flawsome when you are a 200-year-old cultural institution with long traditions of providing the right answer.

fire at the Museum of Danish Resistance (2013)

This is probably one of the worst nightmares of any museum or heritage person: fire. The fire alarm went off shortly before 2 a.m. on April 28, 2013. The Museum of the Danish Resistance, which is part of the National Museum of Denmark, had been set on fire. Firefighters and a rescue team battled the flames most of the day—but everything ended far better than could have been expected.

The Museum of Danish Resistance during the fire

Figure 6: The Museum of Danish Resistance during the fire

The huge archives containing pictures, memories, interviews, and much more relating to the resistance movement during World War Two were saved. In addition, all artefacts were retrieved—some suffered a little, but according to our head of Conservation, nothing has suffered irreversibly and everything can be restored and go back into a new museum, when it is built.

We had two people from the communications team at the site from about 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. One handled the press and the other Web, social media, and internal communications. Two other communication team members worked from home.

What did we do during the fire?

We released no press releases on the day, but the head of Press Relations had ongoing contact with journalists on site and over the phone. We started out by communicating on Facebook and Twitter, not the website. That meant that we had something online quickly: writing a post on Facebook or a tweet is much faster than updating the website, where people expect a lot more. So we showed that our platforms were places worth following for updates about the fire, and that we would use them for news during the fire. On the website we had one page, which we kept on updating, so we did not compete with ourselves in search results.

We communicated in both Danish and English both on our website and on Twitter, but only in Danish on Facebook (as we usually do).

Webvisits of the day ( Made with Google Analytics

Figure 7: Web visits of the day ( Made with Google Analytics.


Search interest over time (for 'Frihedsmuseet'). Made with Google Trends

Figure 8: Search interest over time (for ‘Frihedsmuseet’). Made with Google Trends.

Figure 8 represents the search interest measured with Google Trends. It clearly indicates that the search interest of ”Frihedsmuseet” (The Museum of Danish Resistance) wears off quite quickly. We of course did not have any sharable content ready beforehand; we had to produce it during the day. We did not prioritize time to make a video, only images during the day. Unless the crisis one works with is known to break at a certain time, it is hard to have content ready, with the search engine optimized and prepared to meet an interest like this, which rises—and falls—this quickly. And the question here is also: Will there be an interest in a museum which has just suffered a fire?

We also monitored, but we did not have time to join in with, all conversations about the fire; we monitored them passively to make sure nothing got out of hand. We will come back to this.

Webvisits of the day

Figure 9: Web visits of the day

Tweets of the day

Figure 10: Tweets of the day

Facebook status of the day

Figure 11: Facebook statuses of the day

Overview of the day

Figure 12: Overview of the day

The figures show the viral potential of the social media messages. They reach a much larger group of people than the website does. The message saying that all the objects were safe had an especially big reach on both Twitter and Facebook.

Conclusions from the fire

The numbers very clearly indicate that social platforms have the ability to reach a much larger group of people, and much more quickly, than classic websites. So we hope that we made the right decision when we chose to launch our information on these platforms, instead of spending time writing a press release and publishing it on the Web.

There is, however, little doubt that although the immediate reach of Facebook and Twitter is much larger, the conventional Web and YouTube have more power when it comes to the long tail. The classic Web page will—hopefully—also be there when someone googles for information about the fire two or four years from now.

5. Toblerone or Ayers Rock?

Toblerone or Ayers Rock?

Figure 13: Toblerone or Ayers Rock? The two graphs indicate the difference in the longevity of the interest on the website versus Facebook. Photo credit: Toblerone: jules:stonesoup / Ayers rock: Dai Fujihara

The two graphs in Figure 13 indicate that there is also a huge difference in the longevity of interest in the fire according to platform. On the website, the interest peak has the shape of a triangle. Interest rises—peaks—and diminishes quite quickly (although there will of course still be a much longer tail).

On Facebook the interest rises—but does not seem to wear off quite as quickly. It apparently continues for quite some time, because the likers, their friends, and friends of friends keep debating, sharing, and commenting on the issue. The reach flattens, and the small peak is somewhat related to the fire, since it is May 4 and 5, which is Liberation Day in Denmark, the date on which the Nazi occupation during World War Two ended (and we had a post about it on Facebook—our most liked and shared post ever).

The figures are not meant to advocate the abolition of conventional Web—just to stress that digital is not one, but many things. Web and social media have different potential and roles to play in crisis management.

6. What can we learn from these three crises?

Comparison of the three crises

Figure 14: Comparison of the three crises

One could argue that there is not much point in using social networking sites if the institution is not prepared to be social and have a dialogue. This is obvious, and definitely one of the areas in which we could have done better during the fire. There was not enough time to answer everyone, and only people who wrote direct questions, sent messages, or tweeted us directly were answered. This meant we did not have a lot of real conversations. When we do have another crisis, we will monitor differently and take advantage of the social in social media. We can join conversations when someone writes about the crisis and make sure that they have facts right, replying to both their concerns and speculations on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. In addition, we will try to get enough manpower to reply to everyone.

But then again, should everyone’s post be answered and commented on by the institution? In some cases, it is not possible to reveal news as soon as we have it. Security, for instance, is of course an issue. In general, we cannot comment on security measures, and therefore it is difficult to answer questions such as ”Why was there no X?” or ”Why do you not use a Y?” An answer which seems harmless at that moment could reveal information that in combination with other knowledge could jeopardize the safety of our buildings and cultural objects.

Another issue is that information circulating at a time when not all is clear and fully investigated may in fact be incorrect. As mentioned earlier, it is important to be open and honest, but it can be better to be quiet for a little while instead of revealing information that is ”almost certain” and thus spending a lot of time ”dialoguing” about it—if it turns out to be false.

You owe everyone who is interested a reply, but you do not have to waste precious time replying over and over again. There are trolls, and you do not have time to waste. Give them a reply, but if they keep on arguing it is okay to not get too involved. Your followers can see for themselves that the troll is just here for the discussion, not because they care about you. We have had very few cases with trolls (none during crises); they are usually trolling on our platforms during ‘peacetime’ and not when a real crisis hits.

But like the incident with the amber bear, it is difficult to reply when someone criticizes your museum. But if you have written and rewritten your reply a couple of times and you are getting annoyed, that means it is important that you do reply. And reply as a person representing the museum—the worst thing you could do is to copy-and-paste from the press release. You have to reply as a real human—as scary as it gets.

7. The on-site team

During the fire at the Museum of Danish Resistance, the on-site team consisted of two people (and two more online from home). It could easily have been three—knowing, of course, that not many museums can assign that many people to communication duties. But in this case it would have made a big difference.

One person extra would have given us the opportunity to use visual platforms much better. There were people on the site using Instagram and shooting videos with their phones. We commented on the pictures of the burning museum on Instagram—but due to lack of resources, we did not post any pictures (on Instagram) ourselves.

We could have done it using tags such as #saved, #museumrescue, or the like—conveying the same story that we were anxious to tell on Twitter and Facebook, using pictures of rescued objects and the hardworking firefighters. It would have been easy to share the message about saved objects, when you had posted a photo showing them.

A crisis management plan usually involves appointing a spokesperson. But one spokesperson is not enough; one person cannot talk to the press, do Web pages, update Facebook, tweet, and take photos and edit them. If you think that digital communication is mostly a marketing tool, you may underestimate it. When you have a presence on many platforms, people expect that you are there to reply on the same platforms during a crisis.

8. Prepare for dialogue

Ideally, it would be great to have the time to prepare properly for the dialogue. What types of questions could you expect, and what would relevant answers be? If you have time, go through the possibilities with someone who has the power to sanction your line of answering and make sure that it is consistent with your general communication on the subject.

When a crisis occurs, small problems can quickly become obstacles, because time is the most valuable asset in the process. So make sure that more than one person can access relevant platforms and knows how to use them properly. A lesson learned from the fire is also that it is a good idea to have access to portable, fully charged hardware so that you are able to work for at least a couple of hours ‘in the field.’ In this case it was not such a huge issue—Copenhagen is full of places where a computer can be recharged—but if the crisis is about rune stones somewhere in the countryside, this might be difficult.

Another key element in crises and digital communication is the ability to put information on the classic Web page. Although it may not be the first thing to do anymore, it is still important. If your Web server is in your own building, it is a very good idea to have a backup somewhere that you can activate in case your regular site is inaccessible. Make sure to include on your list of emergency phone numbers the name and phone number of the person who can do the redirect.

Internal communication

Communicating with your colleagues is crucial. Colleagues who are not close to individuals working with the crisis will be affected. Like everyone else, they will form their opinions and views and will be interested in debating and sharing. This is a difficult situation.

There may be—depending on the function a colleague has—limits to the information he or she is allowed to share. This would typically be the case for guards or others who work with security at the museum. But there are many other colleagues as well.

On one hand, we all have the right to express our opinions; on the other hand, nobody is interested in spreading rumours or untrue information. To avoid this, timely and correct information should be issued though the relevant channels, be it internal newsletters or an intranet. Provide facts, and make sure people have correct and valid information. Point out who the official spokesperson is, and make his or her contact information easily available for all.

Sometimes—as with the amber bear—a colleague is personally involved in a case. Make sure to support and protect the colleague—for instance do not allow unpleasant personal comments against him or her on social sites.

9. The list and plan everyone should make

The things we have learnt is that crisis management is transmedia today, and a crisis lasts forever on the Web. We believe that visual and live will play a much greater role in our next crisis. We will prioritize putting videos and images online, especially if they can communicate the message better than text.

Related to the images are hashtags: if you want to keep track of the conversations and keep people in your communication loop, it is a good idea to define hashtags as soon as you start communicating about the crisis. Or if you did not break the story, use the same hashtag as everyone else: it will help your message get through the noise.

Here is the list everyone should make before anything happens:

  • Phone numbers (communication team, director, IT, and departments).
  • Decide who in the team can take care of which platforms, and give them access (intranet, Web page, social networks).
  • Have a laptop, camera, and extra batteries ready.
  • Prepare an emergency Web page (on another server!)
  • If you can, make a list of possible questions and answers
  • Define what kind of replies you are ready to give and how personal your brand can be

Good luck with the crisis management—we hope that you will never need our advice!

Cite as:
L. Hansen and I. Gustav, Crisis Management and the Digital. In , N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published September 30, 2013. Consulted .

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