At one time, it was relatively easy to control or manage internal and external corporate messaging. There was a spokesperson or spokespersons designated as the sole sources for corporate communications. If a crisis occurred, a well-trained, media savvy executive would talk to reporters and explain the situation from the company’s perspective. Over and done with in most cases.
But in today’s world of social media, it is easy for an “unofficial” company spokesperson to set up fictitious accounts and offer a different, perhaps privileged or biased perspective when a crisis occurs. Therein lies the issue-with no practical manner to curb the undiluted and contradictory messaging, the massively unfavorable PR implications are staggering.
There is a certain thrill for a lower level employee to become the de facto, company spokesperson. Being seen on television by friends and family, seeing their quote featured in a news story or blog provides a certain sense of notoriety – the proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. Just a soft shoulder offered to a dock worker, receptionist or administrative assistant, creating the perception of a safe haven to share personal feelings, can cajole an employee to inadvertently provide information better kept within the corporate family. The resultant damage to a brand and associated good will may be incalculable. So, the question is, “Now what do we do?” You are left with two choices – the carrot or the stick, or perhaps both.
In any corporate environment, creating a positive culture is key. Studies have shown that a higher level of job satisfaction with employees as compared to their counterparts making more money if they feel valued and treated with respect. Sadly, this is all too rare in today’s corporate climate. Since one never expects a plant to explode, a product to malfunction, a food to be contaminated, a fired employee to claim harassment, or a key executive to suddenly die, without a plan in place, chaos may well erupt to fill the void. Absent a sense of ‘ownership’ in the success of the company, amongst the employees, Tweets will happen.
When an unfortunate incident occurs, or is about to occur in the case of a line of credit in danger of imminent withdrawal, it is imperative to empower the employees by a demonstration of community, to keep them closely informed of developments; and to make the feel part of the team. A sense of worthiness should arise out of a role as a team member rather than through an anonymous blog posting or viral Tweet. This community relationship cannot be built upon the heels of a calamity; it must be firmly in place BEFORE disaster strikes. This is the only way to limit the potential of a maverick employee becoming an “unofficial spokesperson.” If there is a true sense of ownership and belonging in the corporate culture, employee peer pressure, and genuine loyalty to the corporation will go far to stem the flow of unofficial information making its way into the media.
As has been pointed out repeatedly, the importance of an existing crisis management plan cannot be overstated. . A major element of such a plan is the type of messaging to be communicated and the appropriate spokespersons(s) to implement such communications,
A well-trained, savvy, personable reporter, blogger, or a comforting friend or spouse may easily have a different perspective on events Allowing unauthorized third parties access to unvetted inside information is a sure path to a downward spiral, from which there may be no escape (witness the issues that Dow Chemical faced with silicone breast implants, which were later proven by three separate scientific studies not to have any direct correlation to the illnesses claimed by a multitude of plaintiffs and their richly rewarded attorneys).
One proactive measure to consider is adding a document to an employee’s file, which clearly states that only designated company executives may speak on the company’s behalf in the event of a crisis. Anyone else speaking to media, directly or indirectly, or using any forms of external communication (emails, blogs, and social media) to provide unauthorized information will be immediately terminated, and may face criminal charges. This document should be followed up by annual trainings where the employees ideally witness real-life situations where the protocol was followed and contrasted with examples where renegade employees forced a corporation into bankruptcy. It is important to note that this post does not deal with the ‘whistle-blower” situation, where an employee discloses unethical or illegal practices of a company.
Yes, this is harsh. But unfortunately in today’s world, it is more important than ever before to ensure that all steps are taken to preclude the unprecedented access to millions that is possessed by the average person.
A boiler blows up, a person is injured or killed while performing his or her duties as an employee, and the company’s reputation is on the line. It is essential to provide relevant and current information, share a sense of community, use the stick noted above and gently inform the employees about the dangers of ‘unauthorized leaks’ (e.g., where words or incomplete information is relayed to others will result not only in harm to the company but can easily escalate to a consequent round of layoffs due to the expenses required to combat the lawsuits, public relations nightmare, and erosion of consumer confidence).
The Carrot and the Stick
When a crisis occurs, be as candid with employees as possible, advising that certain matters are ‘still under investigation’, but that you will keep them updated on a regular basis. Let the employees hear or read the news and action steps to be taken from the executive staff, the CEO if possible – not from the press. Ensure that the employees understand that they are part of the team and together you will weather the storm. Remind the employees that working as a team will enhance the likelihood that the impact of a crisis on revenues and profits will be much less severe – if they follow the crisis management plan to a ‘t’. Finally, albeit gently, remind employees of the document they signed, and the crisis management training that they received.
Additional Action Steps
You may not be able to completely stop the flow of unauthorized information, but you can mitigate these to a great extent using the principles outlined below, and taking the following steps: (i) Establish an “as it happens” Google news alert which will instantly provide information that appears on the Internet regarding the company and key executives, (ii) Take the same actions using Twitter applications, and (iii) Monitor Facebook and LinkedIn for unfortunate “What are you doing now?” comments.
When something does get written, posted, released or “tweeted”, prepare and provide an honest response when asked, but ensure that any response is vetted. It may be tempting to respond in a ‘reactive’ manner, but that is not the best strategy. A response is usually required, but the right response is far more important than a fast response in which consequences have not been evaluated.
Please let us know if your company has instituted other innovative steps, or if you have further ideas which might be helpful to others.
(Spencer Maus is Chicago-based, public relations executive with over 15 years of public, media and investor relations experience He has been involved in numerous crisis situations, including representing a plaintiff trial law firm that negotiated a precedent setting settlement from a multi-billion dollar, international, oil corporation).
(Hilory Wallk is a San Diego-based corporate attorney, specializing in Intellectual Property Law, as well as the Legal Director of the Nanotechnology Research Foundation. While working for a Fortune 50 company, Hilory was instrumental in leading a team which successfully avoided a potential PR nightmare by taking appropriate and innovative actions in a timely manner).