Communicating in a crisis: Why in-house should be on the tweet deck

When a crisis hits, in-house counsel can be an important part of the risk management team and that includes paying close attention to the risk to be managed in social media.

When it comes to social media in a crisis, be prepared to have to communicate more widely than you expect, says John Ratchford, general counsel with communications company Navigator Ltd.

Ratchford was speaking at the Ontario Bar Association/Canadian Corporate Counsel Association’s Institute 2015 last week on the role of in-house counsel in a crisis.

He says social media tends to ratchet up the importance of strategic communication and reputation considerations when you consider the speed a message can travel, and the geographic dissemination of a message is unlimited and virtually permanent.

“You get to choose your message and the way in which you deliver it, but you don’t get to choose your audience,” said Ratchford.

“We ourselves have found that it’s not up to us to decide how much interest there will be in a story — we have to feed that beast so we’re better off from the get go communicating more widely.”

Before a crisis even hits, organizations should be ready with a plan in place, says Ratchford.

“It’s less obvious when a story hasn’t broken — when you get that dreaded e-mail from [investigative reporter] Kevin Donovan at the Toronto Star about an investigation, or you found out there has been a data breach within your organization but nobody knows yet. . . . The natural inclination beyond burying your head in the sand and hoping the crisis will pass is to want to get your ducks in order before you tell people about it. Make sure you have a good answer when you finally do communicate,” says Ratchford.

The problem is that later, any delay in communicating will look like deception — especially with data-breach cases, he said.

Ratchford notes there are two categories of risk posed by social media, both of which can escalate in a crisis — inappropriate use and failure to engage.

“You’re better to go out early than to wait,” he said.

Social media also provides the opportunity to monitor stories as they break. By identifying keywords and hashtags, executive names etc., and you can monitor using paid or unpaid services such as Google alerts, Twitter alerts, Social Mention, or Naymz.

But social media itself is not a strategy — it’s a tool. Two major uses for social media include monitoring and engagement.

“In terms of responding appropriately, I do think it is appropriate for legal advisers to help with vetting social media. We certainly expect our legal advisers to vet press releases and others to do fact checking, all the more necessary if you’re trying to reduce an issue to 140 characters,” says Ratchford.

They can also review and approve a set of acceptable posts, review possible responses, and ensure the right spokespeople are acting (and not others). They can also identify potential crisis situations and formulate potential social media strategies and rules of engagement.

When it comes to formulating a social media policy, Ratchford says some elements should include:

•    List the sites/accounts and names being used;
•    Indicate that employees who engage in social media are not authorized to post the organization’s position on a matter;
•    Provide links or contact details for additional information;
•    Outline appropriate use guidelines;
•    Disclaim responsibility for or endorsement of linked items;
•    Claim copyright; and,
•    Indicate that posts are not authoritative.

“There’s also a need in crisis communications and social media to measure and weigh properly — usually when an organization is facing a crisis they search #ABC company and it gives you a picture of those tweeting about you,” he said. “You want to regularly be searching the name of your organization but also names of your board of directors, executives, competitors, related subjects.”

In the case of the AirAsia crash last year, Ratchford said in the first two weeks following the loss of the aircraft, CEO Tony Fernandes put out 75 tweets and was largely in front of the story.

“He confirmed loss of contact with the airline, he said a statement was coming and a few hours later posted a statement to his Twitter account, then stated how he was on his way to talk to the families, then said his thoughts were with family and crew. He’s been lauded with having responded much more effectively than Malaysia Airlines,” said Ratchford.

When it comes to other good examples of crisis management, Jane Burton, legal counsel for the City of Brampton cited the ice storm of 2014 and the way in which Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines was out speaking to the media regularly and onsite during the cleanup.

“He did 25 media interviews during the ice storm,” says Burton.

In terms of bad responses, Todd Burke, national leader of the crisis management practice group with Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, pointed to a case in 2013 in which JPMorgan issued an invitation on Twitter for people to ask career advice questions of its CEO Jimmy Lee.

Six hours later JPMorgan realized #AskJPM wasn’t a good idea.

A few months before, JPMorgan Chase & Co., had been fined hundreds of millions over its “London Whale” trading loss and in October 2013 had reached a tentative $13-billion settlement with the U.S. Justice Department over bad mortgage loans.

“They didn’t understand their reputation as well as they should have,” said Burke. “It’s an example of an organization creating a crisis unto itself.”

The questions were nasty: “Did you have a specific number of people’s lives you needed to ruin before you considered your business model a success?”

Burke says when determining who should be on a crisis communications team, consider the following:

• top executives;
• audit function;
• public relations;
• legal counsel;
• emergency management (depending on the incident); and,
• operations personnel.

Anyone on that team should be media trained, credible, believable, and authentic.

Finally, Burton says it is critical to “plan, train, and test” for crisis management.

“Once you have identified the risks you need to formulate a plan,” she says, pointing to the disaster that unfolded in the fatal mall collapse in Elliot Lake.

“There was a general confusion about who was in charge in Elliot Lake,” she said.

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