Ethics

PREthics: Social Media and Reputational Risk

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A lot has changed in just a few years.

Not long ago, the discussion of social media and reputational risk focused internally on what the company was doing to “be social.” Today, reputational risk continues to score as one of the top risks with executives, but the c-suite conversations are beginning to shift from what the company is doing to drive the business forward to how much impact stakeholders’ social shares/posts have on the organization. With the global reach and speed that social media provides, consumers are well poised to take any flaw with their customer experience and use their influence and networks to ultimately impact a brand’s reputation.

This is what is keeping CEOs up at night.

A New Role of Public Relations

For public relations professionals, ensuring the CEO gets a good night’s sleep when it comes to social media requires a hard look at opportunities and risks and implementing a plan of action.

It Starts with a Risk Assessment

Let’s start with what some might consider a bit of an outlier for public relations. While the R in RPIE certainly doesn’t mean Risk, helping manage certain elements of risk should be a core competency of any PR professional. My professional time in social media has one foot firmly planted in public relations and the other in internal audit – it’s more than a little unique, I get it.  However, it’s afforded me the opportunity to look at both sides of the story and see not only how social media can be a powerful way to build a brand and drive engagement, but how it can also cause significant damage to a brand if not managed judiciously.

Conducting a risk assessment is a process of taking an independent look at current risks that might exist within the organization – in this case the focus is on social media. It’s really not about making sure your Facebook posts are engaging and that your profiles are “on brand” – all of that is well and good, but that doesn’t help your CEO sleep any better.  Internally, the risks can be managed through an unwavering commitment to the highest ethical standards and legal compliance: better governance, strong alignment with business objectives, consistent policies and procedures and comprehensive training and preparedness. However, to be truly effective, it is the external risks that need to be assessed, and that’s when it gets a little more challenging. In order to conduct a comprehensive assessment, PR professionals should be bringing diverse teams from marketing, human resources, customer service, IT, internal audit, legal and others to identify all the potential areas where the stakeholder could utilize social media to share their experience with the brand.

This needs to be a holistic assessment that includes the areas that create risk, but also those where social media engagement presents an opportunity to enhance the brand’s reputation. This involves looking at each potential touch point where stakeholders could have an interaction with the brand and then reviewing the process to deliver the best possible customer experience.  With customer service having some of the most frequent and impactful impressions with a brand, it is critical that all employees are trained and empowered to address both the issue and the customer’s emotional state.  Failing to do so can be a significant contributor to reputational risk.

This can be a challenging exercise as it requires an open mindset from the entire team and the willingness to “conduct an autopsy without blame,” but when done well it can be incredibly powerful for the organization it allows the CEO to hit the snooze button…for the second time.

Next, Priorities Must be Set

After conducting the assessment, it’s possible to walk away with a list of dozens of potential areas that need to be addressed — and that’s not practical. Instead, focus on the issues that pose the greatest opportunities and threats to the brand’s reputation. From my experience in working with both PR professionals and internal auditors over the past few years, I have found some of the top priorities to be:

  • Solidify the Base. In the early to mid-stages of social media maturity, it is important to ensure the organization has the proper social media strategy, plan, policies and resources required to fulfill its current scope of work.
  • Training. This is meant to be both broad and comprehensive. First, verify that employees are trained on company’s social media usage policy. Secondly, confirm that those conducting social media activities on behalf of the company receive ongoing training. Third, don’t forget to train executive management and the board on the social media policy and usage. Being able to get the c-suite and operations teams on the same page will go a long way to effectively managing risk while deriving benefit from social media.
  • Overinvest in Customer Service. In many cases, negative incidents that arise through social media originate through interactions with front-line employees that serve in customer service functions. Optimizing the customer’s experience in this area will not only help drive business success, but will also help to mitigate risk.  As mentioned earlier, this involves two critical components – training and empowerment.
  • Invest in Monitoring. You need to ensure that conversations on social media are continuously monitored for all major keywords such as the brand names, product lines and key employees as well as all major competitors. Regardless of the department(s) doing the monitoring, is essential to the brand’s success on social. Failing to make this investment and listening to the conversations could potentially be the single biggest reputational risk an organization faces in social media.
  • Be Great at Incident Response. Having a comprehensive crisis management process and plan for events and issues that are both internally and externally generated is critical. The fact of the matter is that social media doesn’t sleep. Conversations are occurring around the clock and the ability to identify, triage and respond to these conversations in near real time is critical to both managing risk and engaging the audience.

While the vast majority of the conversations surrounding social media are focused around ways to drive engagement and build the brand, it is equally as important to focus on the issues that can hurt your brand.  For the organization to both protect and build its brand, especially in the age of social media, it is more important than ever for employee to embrace an ethical culture – to walk the talk, and understand that every action and decision has an impact.

Managing reputational risk might not seem like the hottest item on your to-do list, but since it is repeatedly a top concern for your executive team, it might end up being one of the best things you can do for your organization.


Peter R. Scott, CAE, APR is the Chief Operating Officer for the North American Veterinary Community and Executive Director for both the Veterinary Innovation Council and Pet Nutrition Alliance.  He is a senior-level communications and public relations strategist and author specializing in finding the balance between social media engagement and its governance, risk and compliance issues. Pete has co-authored two books “Auditing Social Media” and “The Marketing Strategy: A Risk and Governance Guide to Building a Brand.” Pete currently serves as Secretary for the PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) and is on the Executive Committee for the Association/Non-Profit Section.  He is the past president of the PRSA’s Orlando Chapter and currently serves on the Civil Service Board for the City of Orlando. Connect with Pete on Twitter (@prscott) and LinkedIn.

2 Comments

  • As someone who is begins their journey in the PR world in June this article is very important. We are always told to monitor what we put online however this goes a step further talking about having a plan if something does happen is great advice. As a PR practitioner we should have a crisis response to everything though many people never think about their social media. This is a great article and it has tips that I will use for my own social accounts.

  • As someone who is begins their journey in the PR world in June this article is very important. We are always told to monitor what we put online however this goes a step further talking about having a plan if something does happen is great advice. As a PR practitioner we should have a crisis response to everything though many people never think about their social media. This is a great article and it has tips that I will use for my own social accounts.

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