By Gayle Lynn Falkenthal
Most organizations understand the need for crisis communication plans. Businesses generally define a crisis as an external circumstance forcing itself onto normal operations. Acts of violence or terrorism, natural disasters, political upheaval, or unforeseen accidents are the type of crisis incidents a business may find itself forced to confront without warning. It disrupts your ability to conduct business, rattles employees, and unnerves your customers.
The reality is far different. The vast majority of business crises are generated internally. Research released in 2016 by the media monitoring platform Visibrain found more than three-quarters (78 percent) of public relations crises are caused by an internal misdeed or communication error rather than a disruption from outside the company. Companies are 13 percent more likely to suffer a communication driven crisis than they were three years ago.
Your greatest threats come from your own employees, amplified via social media. Whether an employee offends clients posting an offensive opinion, is observed and recorded treating a client rudely, or leaks confidential information, their behavior can throw your company into turmoil. Your response can make or break your hard-won reputation.
Indeed, public relations woman Justine Sacco got herself sacked by InterActiveCorp, a leading media and Internet company, for a horrible “joke” about AIDS and her trip to Africa. She should have known better.
In some cases, employees believe they’re doing the right thing, or at least doing their best in bad circumstances. When a Jacksonville, Florida Pizza Hut manager posted a memo warning employees not to evacuate more than one day ahead of Hurricane Irma and threatening punishment for “failure to show for these shifts,” he surely thought his devotion to the business bottom line would be admired. Instead, it was universally reviled when a photo of the memo on the restaurant’s bulletin board was leaked to Reddit and began circulating, no doubt thanks to an upset employee.
Unlike external crises you have a limited ability to prevent, your company can proactively ward off a large percentage of potential problems by setting communication guidelines and policies with clear expectations for your employees. There’s no way to ignore the potential for disaster created by access to the world via social media channels. When your employees aren’t clear about where you draw the line, or cognizant when they’re seen as acting on behalf of your company when they didn’t mean to, they will make up their own rules.
Social media mishaps seem to come at us daily. A rude salesperson is captured on a smartphone and streamed live. An executive expresses a sexist opinion on social media account and his company is hung out to dry. A disgruntled employee whose complaints have been ignored by her manager leaks confidential information.
You need to protect your business by providing a definitive social media policy. Employees can’t be accused of “breaking rules” or “violating policy” when no rules or policy exists in the first place. Don’t make the assumption your employees should know better, share management’s view of how social media should be used, or even understand the consequences their personal actions might have on your business.
A few of the basics:
Define what social media means to your company. If it can be transmitted or recorded, including email, text messaging, voice and video, public communication guidelines should be applied.
Extend this policy to behavior by your employees that could be witnessed and recorded through still or video photography. Any employee wearing a company logo or serving the public is a public relations representative. He or she must remain aware they are always being observed in today’s world. Better safe than sorry, or fired.
Employees should respect confidentiality and privacy for your clients, vendors, and for each other including senior management. The same respect must be extended to them.
Your offline rules for their behavior need to apply to their online or virtual activities. If your employee handbook addresses their real life conduct, all of the guidelines should also cover their online conduct.
Limit official posts on your organization’s social media channels to approved, well-trained, and trusted employees. Please, do not put your interns in charge. If you wouldn’t let an intern deliver a major speech, don’t hand them a social media bullhorn.
Employees must be educated about their responsibilities and their potential to hurt the image of their employer when an action or remark is amplified via social media.
Likewise, companies owe it to their employees to provide clarity about their expectations, supported by ample alternative channels for them to speak freely inside an organization. To do otherwise is setting your organization up for a preventable disaster.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a veteran strategic communication and crisis response consultant. She is the president of the Falcon Valley Group based in San Diego. Connect with Gayle on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/falconvalleygroup/