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The staff members that first pushed their companies to invest in social may have been disregarded for their time spent online in the past. However, Friday's horrible incident reveals how crucial those team members and communication channels have become, especially to companies responsible for the safety of thousands on a daily basis.

Los Angeles International Airport‘s public relations and social media specialist Katherine Alvarado was getting ready to enjoy a sunny day off last Friday when she received an urgent phone call to get to the airport immediately.

Only hours before the highways would be flooded with stranded passengers, Alvarado drove to the airport with the help of special staff badge. As thousands fled the site, Alvarado parked her car and sprinted towards her office in LAX’s old air traffic control tower to take the reigns of what would become the most watched and up-to-date news source throughout the crisis — the airport’s Twitter handle @LAX_Official.

Alvarado was not only responsible for sending more than 200 tweets Friday that included the latest news updates, retweets of airlines’ flight changes, and responses to concerned flyers. She also sent emails to LAX’s press list, answered phone calls from media outlets including Skift, and was in constant contact with on-the-ground law enforcement that kept her and the public in the loop.

The Twitter account, which Alvarado personally launched in 2009, was the go-to source of news after a gunman entered the airport with an assault rifle that killed one TSA officer and wounded three other people, including two more TSA workers.

The incident left thousands of flyers stranded, one thousand flights cancelled or delayed, and the general U.S. population wondering what caused the latest rampage.

What Happened That Day

This was the first time that LAX, or possibly any airport, referred the media and public to a Twitter handle as the official outlet for news and updates. Chief of airport police Patrick M. Gannon and executive director of LAWA Gina Marie Lindsey told the public to watch the Twitter handle during two separate press conferences.

However, the airport staff’s extensive crisis communication training by the National Transportation Safety Board and California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services did not touch on social media. It was Alvarado that “knew we had to step up to the plate” and switched the airport’s communication strategy.

Alvarado started working at LAX in 2007 and launched the airport’s Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts in 2009. In addition to managing the airport’s social presence, Alvarado is also part of the airport’s PR team and editor of its e-newsletter for the tourism industry.

According to Skift’s social data dashboard, the LAX Twitter account usually sends an average of 6.7 tweets a day.

On Friday, November 1, it sent approximately 200 tweets including retweets and replies. On Saturday, November 2, it sent approximately 320 tweets including retweets and replies. And it sent approximately 13 tweets on Sunday and Monday.

The account tweeted information as it happened, retweeted airlines with news of flight changes, and replied to stranded flyers.

Advice for Other Airports

Skift spoke with Katherine Alvarado today to find out what advice she could share with other airports that are preparing their communications strategies for a similar crisis. Her main message: Be consistent and engage your customers.

“You have to be consistent and even if you don’t have all the information you can still acknowledge that something is going on. People want to know that something is being done,” says Alvarado.

Alvarado says her goal that day was to answer every tweet and comment that came through the airport’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. Although everyone was told to watch the airport’s Twitter stream, Alvardo knew that not all flyers used Twitter so she also kept tabs on Facebook.

“At the end of the day, people want to know that they’re being heard, and that’s what I was trying to convey to people: ‘This major incident is going on but I am listening to you and trying to help as much as I can.'”

Alvardo continues to help passengers today as people return to pick up belongings left behind during the crisis or flyers worry about increased gate security.

Her dedication to helping passengers and quickly sharing updates has not gone unnoticed. A stream of “thank you’s” have been sent since Friday.

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Tags: lax, social media, twitter

Photo credit: Marcelle Braga stops with her luggage along the entrance way to Los Angeles International Airport as a plane flies overhead on Friday, November 1, 2013. Los Angeles Times/MCT

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