Nearly every director of a publicly-traded company looks in the mirror each morning and sees a leader. Yet, when it comes to the reputational challenges of the Digital Age, most directors seem content to follow–letting others control the online narratives that dominate public perceptions.
Board members are understandably reluctant to learn the ins and outs of social and digital media. It’s not something they grew up with. Corporate disclosure issues, financial matters, and competitive threats loom–and consume most of a board’s agenda. In the Dodd-Frank era, there are often higher priorities. As such, most directors conclude that they can trust a company’s digital and social media strategy to be managed absent their insights and leadership.
Unfortunately, this passive approach has enabled the plaintiffs’ bar, activist investors, NGOs, and regulators to leap a full Internet generation ahead of the companies they target. Adversaries control the conversation.
This occurs not because corporate digital strategists aren’t very good at what they do, but because management has viewed digital communications as a tactic, not a strategy. The end result is that these potentially antagonistic interests are almost always in control of the online narrative–it is what people read and believe. As a result, companies in crisis are often forced into defensive positions from which they react and respond, rather than lead.
To help level the playing field, here are the top five questions boards of directors need to ask about their company’s social and digital media strategy.
1.Have our Enterprise Risk Managers anticipated our most significant risks and identified who owns these issues online?
Your risk managers know your liabilities–but they can’t always look around corners to see which ones will come to fruition. But by taking terms associated with your risks and keying them into Google, they can learn a great deal about the source of your next problem. Do plaintiffs’ firms, regulators, or activists own the top results? If so, what are they saying about the issue? The answers to such questions enable companies to nip problems in the bud before they evolve into something far worse. As such, this exercise should be preformed each day. And a report on the results should be submitted for every board meeting.
2.Are our risk managers, legal professionals, and marketing teams working together?
In many cases, the only people in your company who truly understand the digital universe are your branding, marketing, and communications teams. But they often work on separate floors, in separate buildings, or, sometimes, in different cities or countries than your crisis and management team. For the best results, they all need to work together so that the company can use its peacetime wisely by looking at all your areas of exposure and building coverage on the Web about the hard work you do to prevent those problems. In other words, don’t wait around to defend specific positions related to specific events. Instead, identify risks and dominate the Web with brand-like messages about your prophylaxis in a non-defensive, positive way. For a nuclear power generator, it’s about safety. For a bank or large financial institution, it’s about being an economic engine, the source of economic recovery, and the provider of mortgages (a.k.a. dreams). A critical point to remember is that the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) campaigns that move these positive messages to the top of the Google rankings include risk terms such as “litigation,” “proxy fight,” or “explosion”–as these are the terms stakeholders will be using to gain insight into your next crisis.
3.Do we know and own all of the risk terms and URLs that stakeholders will be keying into Google to access information on our next crisis?
The last thing you want in crisis is for a Google search for “Your Company” and “Problem X” to rank messages belonging to plaintiffs’ firms, activists, or regulators ahead of your own. Once you have identified your risk keywords (i.e. “FCPA investigation,” “shareholder suit,” etc.), buy those terms and related URLs so that no one else can use them directly.
4.Are we actively building relationships with the high authority bloggers who cover our company and our industry?
Bloggers are now the assignment editors for the traditional media. They are the overnight tracking polls for Capitol Hill. They are where the analysts also turn for information. As such, it is incumbent on every company to know who the high authority bloggers are in their industry and to actively build relationships with them. That means direct outreach. It also means that blogger inquiries should be treated with all the respect you’d show The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times. The key here is for your communications professionals to know personally the bloggers who influence marketplace perceptions before you need them, just as they do with key journalists.
5.What is our grassroots digital media strategy?
Lance Armstrong, anticipating last week’s critical 60 Minutes story, sent out an update denying doping allegations to 1.6 million followers on Twitter. In other words, he reached out directly to his audience without ever having to go through the filter of skeptical journalists. He didn’t need to hold a news conference or even comment on air. This strategy may not ultimately prove to be fully sufficient in Mr. Armstrong’s case, but it does shed light on an incredibly powerful crisis management tool that can be used to directly connect with your audience of consumers, shareholders, journalists, analysts, and others.
That’s why amassing multitudes of social media connections (i.e. Facebook fans and Twitter followers) is about more than merely symbolizing a strong brand. These relationships enable companies to speak directly to their stakeholders at critical times without having to depend on the media filter. As such, directors should ask how many followers the company has on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms; how the company plans to reach one million or more; and how social media can be employed as a direct communications strategy.
While a good start, it’s perhaps most important to remember that these five questions represent only the beginning of the conversation. The Digital Age has handed companies their own printing press and movie studio. To make the most of newfound opportunities to write their own stories, companies and the boards that lead them must not view digital and social media strategy as a box to be checked; but rather as ongoing effort that ensures history won’t be written by others.
Richard S. Levick, Esq., is the president and chief executive officer of Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis and public affairs communications firm. He is the co-author of The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis and Stop the Presses: The Crisis & Litigation PR Desk Reference, and writes for Bulletproofblog. Mr. Levick is on the prestigious list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom,” which is compiled by the NACD and Directorship Magazine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.