When most corporate general counsels look at that the world of digital and social media, they see a landscape rife with risk. The potential for an ill-advised employee tweet or Facebook post is always lurking. Online venues have provided plaintiffs’ attorneys and activists with megaphones that amplify their messages. When crisis strikes, the speed with which the public narrative develops and is disseminated is nearly impossible for all but the most prescient companies to match.
But while the Digital Age has certainly introduced an intensified era of legal and reputational liability, it has also provided GCs with tools that, if effectively leveraged, take crisis preparedness and risk management to new and unprecedented levels. When they know where to look, who to watch, and – most important – how to partner with others in the organization who understand the digital space best, GCs can provide themselves with a wealth of intelligence that enables them to prepare for every anticipated contingency.
Even better, they help to demolish the organizational silos that are so problematic when lawsuits and other crisis situations arise.
At times when teamwork and trust are needed to seamlessly navigate the consumer, shareholder, litigation, and public affairs issues that inevitably accompany crisis, disparate departments are asked to come together – often for the first time – to quickly craft one consistent, comprehensive solution to the problem. This leaves little time for trust-building between the GC, investor relations, enterprise risk management, public affairs, brand, and communications teams. Before long, it’s clear that crisis is not the first time that each of these critical functions should be exposed to the diverse perspectives that exist in other corners of the organization.
In the Digital Age, the best crisis management strategies are formulated – and, importantly, implemented – long before the crisis ever strikes. And it takes everyone working together to get the job done.
As the one C-Suiter everyone else looks to for leadership in crisis, the general counsel is uniquely positioned to reach across cubicles, offices, departments, and floors to break down the siloes that hinder optimal levels of digital readiness. As such, here are five ways that GCs can begin to think differently about crisis management in the Digital Age and infuse its strictures into the DNA of the entire organization.
1. Enterprise Risk Management
Collaboration between the GC and ERM departments is critical. It’s the only way to ensure that all the bases are covered and that the organization is appropriately focused on all of the anticipated issues that could create problems moving forward. GCs need to sit down with risk managers, map out all anticipated threats to the organization, and then ensure that ERM is monitoring the digital space to gauge how those issues are evolving on a 24/7 basis.
Who owns the terms associated with our risks (“recall,” “explosion,” “spill,” “corruption,” etc.) on the search engines? What messages are those players highlighting with prominent search engine placement? What conversations are taking place on blogs and social media? Who is driving those conversations? Are those influential voices friendly or potential adversaries in the activist ranks, regulatory community, or plaintiffs’ bar? What is trending not only via Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM), but via Twitter hashtags? What are the hot issues on Reddit?
When the GC helps ERM look at these trends and apply them to risk in the same way that the brand team applies digital intelligence to sales, it ensures that the organization is always looking around corners to identify where – and from whom – its next crisis might arise.
2. Brand Marketing
Armed with a clear and up-to-date picture of the threats that exist, GCs need to then sit down with the brand marketing team to accomplish two key objectives. First, the GC needs understand how these threats could impact the consumer experience. Doing so ensures that risks are properly prioritized and that the organization is prepared to communicate in ways that strike a careful balance between limiting liability and maintaining brand loyalty.
Second, and even more important, the GC also needs understand all the ways in which digital and social media can quell a crisis or send it spinning out of control. No one in the organization gets the digital space better than the brand team. As such, leveraging its knowledge is essential to managing the online venues that impact organizational reputations more than any other.
With the threats clearly outlined, their potential sources identified, and the possible impacts fully understood, it’s time for the GC to meet with the communications team to begin fortifying the organization. This is where all that digital insight from the brand folks comes into play.
First, the GC needs to collaborate with the communications team as it develops optimized prophylactic Web and social media content that can 1) influence conversations and perceptions about their top-line risk issues, and 2) ensure that the organization’s messages receive top-billing in search engine rankings. In some cases, key exposure terms may need to be controlled via SEO and SEM strategies that guarantee prominent placement. The GC needs to take an active role in this exercise as well to ensure that the budget is appropriately allocated. Traditionally, companies may do this once, but it is critical that they update these terms with periodic commitment. Realities change and so should your terms.
At the same time, the GC needs to ensure that he or she is constantly updated with the troves of intelligence that exist in the digital space. By providing the communications team with a list of potentially adversarial plaintiffs’ firms, critical NGOs, important regulators, and an understanding of the import of tracking and analyzing their online activity (blogging, Search Engine Optimization, etc.), GCs can add yet another crystal ball to their arsenal. Now, corporate communications and ERM are informing the GC as to the patterns on the Web that often signal forthcoming activity – and doing so from their own unique, equally valuable perspectives.
And don’t forget about Facebook monitoring, Twitter hash-tag tracking, and social media content strategies that provide insight into consumer sentiment. GCs or others are often reticent to allow employees to wade into the social media space; but when they are prohibited from engaging, companies lose their best brand evangelists – their people – and miss out on crucial conversations and ensuing opportunities to shape them.
4. Public Affairs
With the initial framework in place, GCs can then begin to approach other arms of the organization to further solidify crisis preparedness. In the public affairs context, it’s all about what’s coming down the pike. Is there legislation on the horizon that will increase liability? Are regulators looking at new areas of enforcement that could create new compliance challenges? Who are the key players in the Administration, on Capitol Hill, or in state and local governments that could pose a threat? Do grassroots groups have us in the crosshairs? If so, what are their key concerns?
With those questions answered, GCs can then double back to the communications team to ensure that those issues on its radar screen as well, and that content is created – though not necessarily shared – to control the conversation should any of them present problems moving forward.
On the opportunistic side, few companies are engaging the digital grassroots to influence and forward their public affairs agendas. Relying on traditional lobbying may be as comfortable as it is historic, but it is less effective every day and needs to be integrated into a digital strategy. No one in Washington wants to be first, but everyone wants to be second. Showing grassroots support is the most powerful way to win support (and will be the subject of a forthcoming article).
5. Investor Relations
The same goes for IR. What are the hot topics in traditional media outlets such as The Street? What’s being said about our company and industry on investment social media networks such as Seeking Alpha and wikinvest? What are the issues driving securities litigation in our industry? Have influential shareholders voiced concern over particular business practices or operations? In an age of intensified shareholder activism, these insights help companies stay a step ahead of the game and aligned with their investors in ways that build trust, credibility, and – above all – loyalty.
Richard Levick, Esq., Chairman and CEO of LEVICK, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters — from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past four years on NACD Directorship’s list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom,” and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis, and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the most widely read business blogs.