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The Court of Social Media Meets the World of Fake News – How to Save Your Brand Reputation During a Catastrophic Crisis

Jun 22, 2017

For more than a year, your company has been working days, nights and weekends creating and rolling out sophisticated data protection software for delivery to a major international client. The contract is worth tens of millions of U.S. dollars.

The software rollout was completed ahead of schedule. There is a feeling of confidence that the software, with its complex layers of security protocols, can defend against most online attacks.

Three days later, you are finally on your long-awaited vacation in Paris. It’s mid-day and you and that special someone are sitting at a table in an outdoor café when your mobile phone rings. It’s a panic-stricken voice from the office. A crisis is evolving. The multi-million dollar client has been attacked and a major security breach has occurred. Sensitive files are spreading across the web. Emails, financial information, research, and development files along with personnel records. The client’s most sensitive files are being held hostage and hackers demand a ransom or the information will be sold on the Dark Web. Rumours run rampant over social media, fake news stories appear online, negative news stories spread on legitimate media and the companies’ stock prices suffer a massive nose dive. The client issues a news release and places blame for the breach directly on your company’s failure to live up to expectations

Does this scenario sound too far-fetched?  No. Today, the best security software, designed by an external vendor or by a company’s internal IT team, can spend hundreds of staff hours and huge amounts of dollars on online security, only to fall victim to a group of mysterious dark web hackers who have exploited software vulnerabilities.

If the worst case scenario does impact your organisation, management must be ready to address the situation that can severely damage your company’s brand.

Preparation, Preparation, Preparation 

Many years ago, as a young radio journalist, I was assigned the NASA beat and covered several Space Shuttle Flights.  During one news conference, I asked Astronaut Guion Bluford what is the most important lesson learned during his NASA training. His consisted of only three words, “Preparation, preparation, preparation. Plan for all possible problem situations that can occur during a mission, and develop strategies to solve the issues.”

Preparation – getting ready for a crisis is the first step in protecting your brand reputation.  The following are seven key action steps you can use starting today to better position your company to address a crisis:

Organise a cross-department working team to brainstorm all possible disaster scenarios.

As an external vendor or internal IT security team, the team has discussed this issue numerous times within your department.  But have you invited input from other departments? Getting input from others can reveal other potential problems.

Form a crisis management team.

Bring together the executive team, and select a group of subject matter experts within the company that will address an emerging crisis. Establish a ‘War Room’ where all information related to the crisis is collected and decisions will be made.

Create a crisis communications plan.

Preparation leads to planning. Work with your communications team to create a crisis communications plan. Identify the top five to ten potential crisis situations from your staff meetings and discuss these issues with your communications team. This will serve as a launching point to create a crisis communications plan.

Write holding statements.

Here is a tip from the aviation world. Most commercial airlines have prepared holding statement for use during the first hours of an aviation incident. When a crisis happens, it is critical to gain situational awareness and to get your message out quickly. Creating holding statements, generic statements designed for use based on the type of crisis is for use as

Here is a tip from the aviation world. Most commercial airlines have prepared holding statement for use during the first hours of an aviation incident. When a crisis happens, it is critical to gain situational awareness and to get your message out quickly. Creating holding statements, generic statements designed for use based on the type of crisis, is for use as a news release, on social media and communications with internal stakeholders during the first few hours of a crisis.

Media train your president and key management.

The company must be prepared to face news media scrutiny. The top managing officer is the company spokesperson during a crisis and will answer challenging questions from local, regional national and trade media. Media training prepares leadership to understand how the media operates, how to answer questions and most importantly – how to deliver key messages to external/internal stakeholders to strike a balance in the court of public opinion.

Implement a platform to monitor social media.

Chances are high that a crisis involving a software security breach first will first appear on social media and be picked up by the news media. Empower your communications team with the tools to monitor YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Periscope and other social media sites. Monitor these and other sites for ‘fake news stories’, rumours and general public opinion.  Look for negative trends and incorporate the proper response in all public statements.

Form an After Action Committee.

This is a term often used in the military for describing a working group tasked with reviewing combat action from start to finish for reporting to top levels of government.  An After Action Committee can serve a similar function as a thorough review of what worked and what didn’t work during the crisis. A final report can function as part of the company’s institutional memory – a teaching tool to help staff manage crisis situations in the future.

About the author: Mario Gomez

Mario is the VP of Operations Americas for GoCrisis Management and is a dedicated and passionate corporate public relations professional with more than 20 years of experience as director of corporate communications, media spokesperson, crisis communications specialist, media relations strategist and social media producer. Mario has frontline crisis communications experience and has been involved in media relations during many aviation accidents, corporate crisis, and natural disasters. He has held leadership positions with Kenyon International Emergency Services, The United Way of Houston and the Cenikor Foundation.

During his tenure with The United Way of Houston, Mario was a member of the Executive Management team. He analyzed the potential impact of a critical situation involving the 2001 Enron financial crisis (a major United Way corporate donor) and questionable donations to the organization. He implemented a crisis communications plan and managed a “feeding frenzy” of potentially negative national news coverage and minimized the impact to The United Way. Result: no negative news coverage with The United Ways’ involvement during the Enron crisis.

Mario‘s previous experience includes training NASA astronauts in communications, positions as a television news and radio reporter in the Southeast United States. He has received awards from the Public Relations Society of America, Texas Public Relations Association, a Suncoast Television Emmy nominee and he is FEMA Certified National Incident Management System Public Information Officer.

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