Social media eliminates the margin for error on crisis response

As the Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics recently observed, controversies today are tried more often in the court of public opinion than in any court of law.

These reputational trials can greatly influence public perception and thus, tarnish or burnish an organization’s brand. That threat has grown exponentially with social media. The result: an organization’s most important asset can be significantly damaged before a legal trial even begins.

Indeed, since most legal controversies are settled prior to trial, the court of public opinion has arguably become the most important battleground not only for goodwill and market share, but also for legal bargaining and settlement negotiations.

Managing this battleground has become a critical skill set for attorneys and business leaders alike. Whether your brand is immersed in crisis, or dealing with a hot-button issue, expect your news to go viral. A fast, smart response is essential.

How to get ready
■  Examine existing crisis protocols. “We’ll wing it” isn’t a plan.
■  Insist on crisis and media training for key people.
■  Break down silos. Make sure legal is part of your team and available at any time.
■  Understand how social media works. You must be able to convey complex ideas and corporate values in 140 characters, quickly.
■  Prepare to concede the legal or share-value argument. Make decisions based on reputation.
■  Review your corporate social responsibility program. Is it strategic, or just philanthropic?
■  Understand your values and customers — be prepared to defend what you believe in.
■  Approach your issues holistically, as your adversaries do.
■  Prepare now — while you have time.

How to react smartly
■  You have the high ground if the facts support you. However, perception is reality. The burden is on you to quickly refute falsehoods and provide compelling evidence to prove why they are not true.
■  Tell the truth, tell it first, tell it all and tell it fast, but stick to the facts. Avoid value judgments.
■  Once you’ve presented the facts, resist the urge to engage with social media trolls. You won’t win this flame war, and you won’t convert hardcore extremists.
■  Enlist your allies and supporters. If trolls have the echo chamber reverberating with disinformation, get a bigger megaphone and broadcast the truth as loudly as you can with all the help you can muster.
■  Speak with transparency to fight social media falsehoods. Ignore it and risk losing credibility.
■  Keep your head low. Whether proactively communicating or correcting misinformation, post, then stop. Resist the urge to communicate again — until or unless new misinformation surfaces.
■  Redouble your social media monitoring. Don’t let mistakes or misstatements persist online.
■  Make sure customer service and sales know about the issue so they aren’t surprised with questions from customers.
■  Be available. A social media firestorm can be an opportunity to gain friends and burnish reputation — if you’re prepared and if you execute accordingly.

Bruce Hennes is managing partner at Hennes Communications.