Leading From Behind in Assessing Reputational Risk and Social Media

08 Aug, 2012 Bob Wilson


Last week I wrote about a corporate CFO and Treasurer who torpedoed his own career by videotaping himself ripping a drive thru cashier at Chick-Fil-A over the beliefs of her company's president. While this simpleton proved that you don't need to possess intelligence or common sense to attain high positional status, that was not that impressive of a point. After all, I proved that years ago, and continue to push the envelope of credulity every day. The bigger point he ultimately proved was that controlling reputational risk in social media is a daunting task for companies and their employees nowadays.

I mentioned in that article that I had just attended a session at the Florida RIMS Annual Conference that addressed the issues of managing risk in social media. The panel took a great deal of time discussing risk and ramifications to both using information garnered via social media, and having plans to deal with issues fed by those same entities. But, as often is the case, it was a question from the audience that gave me my biggest "takeaway moment". The panel had been stressing how company's today need to have a strategic plan for dealing with social media "crises", when they were asked, "How can we manage a situation that occurs and can literally explode in minutes via social media, before we even know there is a problem?" 

The panel answered competently, but didn't directly give the man the answer I would have preferred. They reiterated the importance of having policies and plans in place on managing issues as they arise. They also correctly stressed that policies established must be followed, as an ignored policy is worse than none at all. However, the answer they really gave the man was not what they physically said. The answer to the question, "How do I get out in front of a crisis with today's Internet technology?", is more simple. More direct.

You can't. 

We can no longer expect to "get out in front" of troublesome issues when they happen. We are, from this point forward, playing catchup to anything that hits the social conscience. We can only expect to manage, guide and properly respond to a burgeoning story, and hope for the best possible outcome. 

The risks are many, and the sources from where they exist seem to be endless. Your crisis could be a customer injured on your premises, an employee who steals customer data, or a video posted by a moron of him chewing out a drive thru worker over hot social issues that suddenly puts your company in the crosshairs. Any of those scenarios can take on a life of their own in the "twittersphere". Businesses need to be prepared to manage these events, and, to quote a phrase made popular recently, "Lead from behind" on the issue. 

I am not an expert on this by any means, and in fact people in my office will likely tell you that I represent the biggest reputational risk to my company, but this is what I think a crisis management policy regarding a story that has gone viral needs to address:

  1. Accurate fact gathering - who, what, where, when and why did the event occur? You need to know everything you can about this, including what is being said via various social media outlets.
  2. Communicate via the same online vehicles that you are conducting step 1.
  3. Assess the damage - how screwed are we? What could we have done to prevent this? Did we have any negligence that has contributed to this story/event? 
  4. Communicate via the same online vehicles that you are conducting step 3.
  5. Respond and react - document, discipline, terminate, exterminate; you need to take progressive steps to fix what you can, and communicate clearly about what you can't fix.
  6. Communicate via the same online vehicles that you are conducting step 5.
  7. How can we prevent a reoccurrence of this event again? There might not be a happy answer to this, but it is always wise to learn from your mistakes.
  8. Predictably, communicate via the same online vehicles that you are conducting step 7.
  9. Honesty is the best policy - if you screwed up, if your company screwed up, if your employee screwed up, admit it to whatever extent the hypertensive folks in Legal will allow. 
  10. Screw the folks in Legal. If you are not honest and transparent in today's tech savvy world, the blogosphere will chew you up and spit you out. End of story.

(Reading these 10 points, I can't believe companies don't pay me to write these policies for them)

As I mentioned earlier, you can no longer get in front of issues fed by social media. You can however, effectively respond to and guide a story to a positive result. But you need to be ready to do so. As you should have surmised, thorough and complete communication is key. In the absence of accurate information, rumor and innuendo will fester. Establish policies that define who will take the crisis lead and who will coordinate the response. Set up accounts on all the major social media players today, if you have not already done so. Familiarize yourself with how they all work. Trust me, if you have a smart phone carrying employee strip naked and take a group of kindergartners hostage in the walk in cooler, that will not be the time to figure out how to set up a Twitter account. The time to do all this is before you actually need to.

Turns out that "leading from behind" is not such a ridiculous notion after all. We really have no choice. In the end, you will find that it is not the crisis or event that determines your reputational  risk. It is how you respond to that crisis on which you will ultimately be judged. 


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