Challenges and risk mitigation for PR when the crisis root is social

Ai Weiwei, According to what?

When reviewing case studies in recent years regarding problems or issues that held the attention of the general public and media caused by or on social media, most can be attributed to internal company errors in human judgment (many associated with social inexperience or marketing miscues).

Although I’d opine very few things relate to the type of true corporate crisis as detailed in Part I, this type of “social media based event” can or does impact reputation, at least for the short term and requires damage control. In particular, the need to communicate via the same social channels that caused the attention.

Who or what is to blame?

In most cases the root causes relate to things such as:

  • Social media policies and guidelines either didn’t exist or were not specific enough regarding channel roles, responsibilities and spokesperson authority.
  • Related to the above, a lack of (or insufficient) training, understanding or appreciation about the ramifications when social media policies and guidelines aren’t followed, whether in-house or outsourced.

Example: an Applebee’s Restaurant now ex-waitress “outing” the ungenerous tipping pastor on Reddit without the knowledge or permission of that branch’s management. The company CEO indicated this type of behaviour went against company values, by violating a trust that the privacy of patrons is a priority.

  • Hiring decisions, both in-house and outsourced.

Example: Domino’s Pizza and the global impact of a vulgar video that went viral, created by two bored, rogue employees at one small town franchise during a slow-business Easter long weekend.

  • Words or images used, including intended effect (e.g., attention, social shares, something going viral), that do not reflect the corporate culture or values or goals related to the social business.

Example: the Ford India Berlusconi-and-bondage ad in 2013 that went viral, which was in jarring contrast to the car company’s corporate culture and Ford’s lauded, long-term “social business” profile and values.

  • A serious world event, political or religious issues being appropriated for marketing purposes.

Example: the infamous, insensitive Kenneth Cole tweet during the Arab Spring…and a more-recent second, deliberate one by the same company regarding Syria and the potential of American “boots on the ground.”

  • Inappropriate words or images used, due to seemingly non-existent or ill-defined approval mechanisms relating to uploading creative.

Example: the short-lived Belvedere Vodka Facebook ad with sexual overtones, whose creator(s) and rationale for existence never were explained.

  • Access to corporate account dashboards that also incorporate personal social media accounts.

Example: the inappropriate and negative tweet about the American president coming from the non-political KitchenAid corporate account.

  • An organization’s mission being hijacked by others in social channels.

Example: Private fundraising foundation Susan G. Komen’s mandate to find a cure for breast cancer through research—by providing grants to appropriate bodies—being hijacked by political, religious and other special interest groups regarding communication that a funding grant to a specific NGO would be discontinued in future. Speculation on social channels was rampant and vicious as to the perceived partisan reasons why. None of the debate appeared to focus on the suitability or not of Planned Parenthood’s past use of funds from the private foundation on actual breast cancer research.


Although the jury of public opinion about reputation and/or true longer-term financial impact is still unknown for some of the most well-known social media-related incidents, because the severity of the crises did not cause actual harm to others (e.g., loss of life, health, livelihood or reputation), generally the news cycle proves to be short term, particularly when handled decisively and well, such as by KitchenAid’s senior communicator.

It’s interesting how the Kenneth Cole first tweet continues to get mentioned as doing reputation damage, as the company founder recently indicated that sales weren’t impacted post-tweet, and so the second iteration was no accident.

Kenneth Cole aside, the long-term impact on reputation usually can be mitigated on how the event is handled both during the “crisis” (through integrated communication that includes social) and the going-forward promises and reality.

As lead PR counsel to a business leader considering implementing social, look to these past incidents of doing harm and doing wrong, so that you bake into social public relations and communication ways to do things right at the front end.

Mitigating the internal risks of having a social media crisis

Consider the following recommendations to mitigate risks related to crisis management:

1. Make creation of an easily understood social media policy and guidelines a priority, with input from legal and HR. Ensure employees have read the documents in their entirety and understand the contents.

2. Invest in training existing staff or new hires about all of the negative ramifications when corporate accounts are abused or social actions (on personal account) are not given full consideration. (Recently two Toronto firefighters were fired for making sexist comments on their personal Twitter accounts.) Ensure external agencies and consultants on contract have that understanding as well.

3. Invest in senior-level corporate communication and public relations staff who are familiar with best practices for crisis management, including via social channels. Alternatively, know which reputation and issues management agency can be called upon. Whether done in-house or externally, develop a crisis communication plan that incorporates social.

It was only after its “withdrawing-financing” fiasco was at its traditional and social media “accusations-and-speculation” height that Susan G. Komen contracted an agency that specialized in reputation and issues management (in contrast to its existing marketing communications firm) and hired an in-house, full-time, senior-level communication specialist.

4. When establishing a social media account or channel, determine at the front end its primary intent. For example, is it meant to be used for corporate communication and public relations, marketing, customer service or some other purpose?

During a crisis, triage the communication and engagement to the channels identified for this purpose. Don’t shut down the other accounts and do continue to offer customer service, but overt marketing during a crisis will not be well-received. (This is true for competitors. Cruise lines who offered special deals during various Carnival crises were deemed to be crass and opportunistic.)

The reason primary communication channels should be made evident is because during a crisis many businesses invested in social find accounts previously used for contests and marketing, fundraising or similar purposes, etc., become a quagmire of negative and demanding comments and accusations, often by individuals who are visiting for the first time.

This happens most often on Facebook accounts, although a Twitter account can get bombarded with some angry individuals escalating the tone and frequency when they don’t get a response. (Sometimes a parody account is set up, which was the case with BP.) Trying to respond on a one-to-one basis during a crisis to non-core audiences not only is a huge time sink, it is unlikely to change minds, ergo a rather fruitless activity.

If from the beginning the social business policy was not to respond publicly to individual negative comments (e.g., McDonald’s Canada and its Facebook page), during a crisis the perceived obligation from non-core audiences holds less weight and force.

5. Ensure brand consistency in all social communication that impact corporate reputation and values. For most corporations this means avoiding any overtly negative references or insinuations or imagery related to things such as cultural or religious norms, sexuality, bondage, politics, reproductive choices, alcoholism and drug abuse, lawlessness and so on.

What the creative department might conceive as edgy and attention-grabbing likely will have the opposite impact, effect and outcomes on the core audiences and stakeholders that matter the most, particularly if one generation or gender is designing copy or information that likely will be most consumed and commented upon by another.

If your company boasts a healthy diversity in terms of gender, ethnic groups, religious affiliation, educational and professional backgrounds, as well as age groups and social media proficiency, consider instituting a social media advisory council to call upon for content discussion and approval for anything that gives initial pause.

6. Have clear approval processes in place for uploading information and images, particularly related to advertising and marketing.

7. Minimize the chances of a personal opinion being accidentally shared by giving access to a corporate social account only after a clearly articulated procedure and suitability assurance check.

8. For the internal stakeholders, particularly employees, having a social sharing platform in place (such as Yammer) helps everyone to “sing off the same song sheet,” including understanding and appreciating who are the authorized spokespeople on various platforms. Any employee can assist by “sharing” the authorized crisis communication information and/or links via personal accounts.

9. An interesting, ongoing social practice learned about from Alabama Power is instituting private Twitter accounts for regional media relations staff, where information is shared with journalists who requested a follow. The main reason the accounts are closed is so that general customer service requests don’t get mixed into the stream of media relations staff, meaning both the information and the core audience are targeted. This could prove an invaluable direct channel to journalists during a crisis.

In future the greatest threats to reputation may be rooted in external social factors

Although my two-part post focuses on internal mitigation of risks and/or handling of damage control to reputation—and I do believe if a company is mindful in its implementation of social elements and education of employees, fewer and fewer crises will erupt—in future the greater threats with a larger impact (to longer-term reputation and trust) likely will come from the outside.

This includes the constant “documentation” of more-dubious decisions and actions of companies or organizations through social sharing.

Various Canadian police forces certainly have felt this threat to their authority and reputation via public recording and sharing, not to mention voracious, mainly united condemnation (both within Canada and outside) regarding events such as:

  • the handling of the Toronto G20 riots, whereby innocent citizens were harassed or hurt by the same forces that are supposed to protect them
  • Rateah Parson’s suicide following the cyber bullying she endured after a gang rape (that the Nova Scotia police foirce initially indicated lacked sufficient proof to warrant further investigation); and
  • teenager Sammy Yatim being shot to death with multiple bullets by one officer (and also being tasered) on a major downtown Toronto street late at night, caught and shared thanks to a nearby citizen recording it via his smartphone

And these are localized external threats to reputation. According to the fascinating and rather scary book, Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, by Ronald J. Deibert (director of The Citizen Lab), theft of big data and breaches of computer systems and DDoS–i.e., distributed denial-of-serviceattacks by independent hacktivists or amorphous groups such as Anonymous are going to impact companies more and more.

Although many of the attacks are a result of skilled knowledge (sometimes relatively benign, other times with great, mindful intent to do harm) to breach security walls, others come as a result of employees participating in social channels, including use of personal devices to access wholly owned and third-party company accounts.

Perhaps potential crises from external sources and their impact on organizational reputation as revealed in Black Code will be the focus of a future post.

Concluding this two-part post: Work towards social goodwill

Many brands are working hard at developing communities through social media and a significant number have achieved great success in identifying brand champions with whom they partner for information and images co-creation and collaboration. The social goodwill may prove beneficial during a crisis if stakeholders advocate on behalf of the business. However, the crisis management and crisis communication should not be too dependent upon these individuals, actions and outcomes.

In the end, the actual crisis issue and existing corporate reputation elements; organizational acceptance of responsibility; frequent and honest information (or explanations) from relevant employees; monitoring, understanding and incorporating public sentiment and opinions; and, most importantly, outlining a path going forward, will be the decisive factors of how long a news cycle lasts and if you win the war of the news story.

Investing resources into a relevant, viable and trusted “social business” presence; earning loyalty and trust; being strategic and smart about social PR and communication before, during and after a crisis; listening and learning can only help your corporate reputation.

My end recommendation is not to worry too much about what might happen. Instead focus energies on mitigating the possibility internally of doing harm—or being stupid—and reaping the benefits of doing social well.

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About the photo: I wanted to capture a sense of how the world is changing thanks to social media and the role public relations can play in being “mindful” about its uses.

I took this photo at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s media preview of the very powerful Ai Weiwei exhibit, According to what?

In the foreground is Grapes, 2010, which comprises 40 antique wooden stools from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The various inkjet prints on the wall are Beijing’s 2008 Olympic Stadium, 2005-2008. Originally Weiwei collaborated with Swiss architectural firm Herzo & Meuron to design the stadium, with the photographs showing various stages of construction. He said he designed the “bird’s nest” stadium to “give people the impression of freedom and openness.” Ai Weiwei later distanced himself from the project and criticized the Chinese government for using the Olympic Games as a platform to present a false impression of progress to the world while ignoring its human rights record.

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