Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, January 22, 2021

One tweet away from disaster

Employee social media posts are a danger to your business. You must have a plan

A late-night tweet by a now-former University of Tennessee-Chattanooga assistant football coach is just the latest example of how quickly an ill-advised remark can spark a huge public relations firestorm.

But organizations and their employees can take common-sense steps to manage a crisis and, even better, stop unfiltered tweets from seeing the light of day, say area human resources and public relations practitioners.

“I recommend all organizations have a crisis plan in place that is shared across their organization,” says Amanda Ellis, president of the Public Relations Society of America’s Lookout Chapter. She also is the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce’s marketing and communications manager.

“You can’t predict everything,” she adds, “but don’t underestimate the power of forethought and the importance of having everyone in the organization understand things like, who the main spokesperson is, or where to meet to account for everyone in the event a crisis impacted the physical workspace while people are in the office.”

Crises can come from any angle: An act of nature, an employee’s conduct or even from people with no connection to an employer. One Chattanooga-area organization’s social media platforms came under siege late last year from anti-vaccine activists outside the United States after a nurse fainted after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. A video of the incident went viral, with conspiracy theorists and activists causing all sorts of mischief for the nurse and the organization.

“Managing this crisis was a 24-hour-a-day job for 12 days,” a manager told fellow Chattanooga SHRM members in an informal email questionnaire. Chattanooga SHRM is an affiliate chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management.

As another SHRM member said via email, “The beauty of social media is that it is immediate. The danger of social media is that it is immediate.

“People are prone to using social media as a stream of consciousness medium; their first thoughts and reactions are translated to tweets and posts as they experience the adrenaline rush of the immediate likes, retweets and comments. Social media cannot read sarcasm, dark humor or off-the-wall; it only reads face value.”

Many in Chattanooga – citing possible conflicts of interest or simple hesitation – declined to comment for this article, especially from a sports perspective.

Bryan Harris leads both the crisis and sports practices at Jackson Spalding, a marketing communications firm in Atlanta that works with Chattanooga attorneys. The firm’s sports clients include the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Falcons, the ESPN/SEC Network and the University of Georgia. Harris joined the firm in 2006.

He defines a crisis as an emergency that escalates quickly to threaten the reputation, credibility, operations or viability of an organization. The UT-C case was a crisis because it posed a threat to the university’s credibility and reputation, Harris explains.

“The lifeblood of a college football team is recruiting good talent,” he says. What the assistant coach tweeted could have offended potential recruits and their families and kept them from signing with UT-C.

The No. 1 way to manage through a crisis is to prepare for the crisis, Harris points out. Large organizations can develop crisis plans and crisis drills, and individuals can develop their own as well. Ask yourself how you would handle specific situations, he recommends.

A crisis response exposes an organization’s core values, he continues, and organizations and individuals need to identify their core values and true beliefs. Employees need to learn to ask themselves, before hitting “send” on an email or social media communication, “Does that reflect who I am as a person or an organization. … If your social media is an extension of yourself, you don’t have to tweet every thought that comes into your head.”

The same way social media can build a brand, Harris adds, it also can tear one down.

Human resources managers also recommend that organizations develop social media policies as a first step toward establishing control and influence over what may affect them.

In addition, organizations need both social media policies and tools to monitor the social media comments of employees and visitors to their website, including the ability to restrict comments and traffic to the company website, Chattanooga SHRM members say.

SHRM Chattanooga past president Merri Mai Williamson offers a key question for managers: “In simplest terms, if a statement made on social media were made in the workplace, would it warrant a disciplinary action? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then the social media post would, in most cases, also result in some type of discipline.”

The HR managers note social media policies should include:

Clear guidelines on the expectations for an employee’s use of social media

Information on what may happen if the policy is violated

Education so people understand the policy and can follow it. Examples and case studies help make things concrete for employees and enhance understanding. Employers can also teach employees how to protect their own privacy online, such as through privacy settings. Some employees don’t know how social media privacy settings can help prevent hacking and identity theft.

Continuing, regular education of employees

Legal review so the policy doesn’t infringe on employees’ rights under state and federal laws

Once a company adopts a social media policy, Harris says, it should train employees “in the same way that parents need to talk to their children about social media,” namely that social media statements live forever. “That has to happen at the institutional level,” he says.

A lot of social media policy seems to boil down to the old warning: When in doubt, don’t. Ellis offered a close-to-home example.

“If you wouldn’t say it in a conversation with your grandmother or your boss, people whom you are probably connected with on social media, don’t post it,” she says.

“You can delete a post, but someone could screen shot it as soon as it’s out there or it could still appear in newsfeeds. If in doubt, don’t post. If you don’t say it, no one can quote you on it.”

Ellis, the PRSA Lookout Chapter president, says the New York-based organization offers online guidance on crisis communications.

Atlanta marketing communication firm Jackson Spalding has developed a crisis communication plan white paper that’s available on request. Many companies don’t have such plans, and it can take years for an organization to recover from a crisis, the firm’s report says. The white paper lists these steps in developing and refining a crisis communication plan:

First, acknowledge you need a plan.

Second, determine what your organization’s plan must include. Jackson Spalding recommends what it calls an ICE approach:

n Identify the facts of the situation

n Categorize the nature of the problem

n Engage by determining the right message, messenger and medium to reach the most important/most affected audiences inside and outside the organization.

Third, set up your crisis team and establish roles and responsibilities for team members. The firm recommends including the organization’s top executive, legal counsel, communications, human resources, operations, the organization’s top expert on the subject matter of the situation, and external crisis support counsel.

Legal issues can be key. In some crises, Harris says, a client needs to talk with a lawyer before talking with a marketing communications or crisis management firm.

Fourth, take action. Tailor the action to the seriousness of the problem. Not every challenge to an organization represents a crisis. Social media crises pose separate challenges because of how quickly information spreads.

Fifth, practice the plan. Each member of the crisis team should simulate their roles and be familiar with the plan, messages and process.

Finally, learn from the plan and supplement it as needed. After the crisis has subsided, learn what worked well and what didn’t. Jackson Spalding recommends that the crisis team meet within a week of the crisis.