Far reaching and instantaneous, social media is both a valuable tool and a dangerous risk. It can enhance reputation or it can ruin it. It can do wonderful things for your organization, but all it takes to turn public sentiment against you is an ill-considered photo, an inappropriately worded tweet or a complaint from a disgruntled employee.
Nonprofit organizations that have adequately prepared for the worst by putting into place proactive prevention strategies and response scenario action plans will be better off than those that simply wait and react.
Proactivity assumes that you have an established voice on social media. Consistently posting content that reaches volunteers, supporters, donors, trustees and other stakeholders, and describes your mission and values, puts your familiar reputation at an advantage when it is threatened.
Base your plan on information gathering and dissemination:
1. Identify social media users who affect your online reputation. That means your organization’s official accounts and also your CEO’s personal Twitter account, board members’ various accounts, those of high-profile celebrity spokespersons, etc.
Keep in mind that employees might acknowledge their professional affiliation on LinkedIn and elsewhere. Your prevention plan will pertain to your sphere of influence. Acknowledging that negative postings are often external, take control of stakeholder postings to the extent that is reasonable. The list should include related organizations (e.g., partners and vendors) and staff publicly affiliated with your organization.
2. Expand your communications policy to include a social media policy. Describe in it how employees should present themselves online outside of work (e.g., nonpublic information should not be posted), and limit access to posting to your official social media accounts. Include guidelines to clearly define what is acceptable and unacceptable in postings related to your organization, whether in public or private accounts. Incorporate clauses that refer to the policy into any applicable employment contracts.
3. Publicize the communications/social media policy throughout the organization. Just as important, conduct training to include communications staff, employees and board members. Point out the value of social media as a tool and encourage its use, and explain why and how to avoid reflecting badly on the organization. As with any policy, communicate the impacts and repercussions of violations, particularly if they constitute a data breach (i.e., leaking confidential information or intellectual property).
Establish a monitoring function
After identifying and educating your stakeholders, practice vigilance. A negative post requires immediate action. But, to act quickly you need to know about it. Activate social media monitoring of your direct accounts, as well as of your organization’s name, key programs and related accounts, such as key employees, board members or celebrity spokespersons. Assign staff to regularly check various channels for mentions of your organization, or invest in social listening technologies (e.g., Hootsuite, Sprout Social) to receive alerts when the organization is trending, positively or negatively. While some posts can’t be deleted or their effects erased, you’ll be aware of them for remediation.
Something inappropriate will happen at some point. An employee might post Facebook photos of a departmental night at the bars, or a celebrity wearing a cap displaying your logo may be photographed and tagged while espousing a distasteful opinion. You need to have a plan in place, and you need to implement that plan right away if circumstances require.
The plan should address the key components — the offending post and responsible individual, the post’s impact and the subsequent changes to practices in order to minimize the chances of a similar event happening again. Your scenario plan should address the key components in a detailed manner:
✲ Determine how the communications department should react. For example, a genuine public outcry might require an all-out response, with statements from organization leadership, and involve an external public relations firm and internal communications to staff. Some negativity is best ignored. Don’t fall into the trap of engaging with those who just want an argument (e.g., Internet trolls). You’re unlikely to change their minds and you’ll risk harm by elevating their points.
✲ Define escalation procedures, including the point person and whom to contact (e.g., general counsel, CEO and/ or board members). Have contact information in an easily accessible place.
✲ Distance your organization from the offending post. Create a templated, formal response that will distance the organization from the poster and the post (e.g., emphasize that the poster’s values do not align with the organization’s values). This response should be posted on social media, as well as through traditional channels (e.g., website and press release).
✲ Publicly reinforce your organization’s good reputation. Release photos and stories that take the offensive as reminders of your mission and core values. Where possible, speak specifically to the subject of the negative post. For example, if a tweet implies your organization doesn’t support the community, show proof of outreach programs.
✲ Evaluate actions post-event. After any significant event, work with the communications department to review the public reaction and your organization’s response, and evaluate your organization’s actions. If needed, update any policies or practices based on learnings (e.g., what types of organizational postings were well-received or updated escalation procedures) so that the organization can minimize the chances of a similar event reoccurring and enhance organizational response for any future events.
The plan should also address good postings. If a celebrity gives you a shoutout at an awards show, how will you capitalize on that? Using your social listening will allow you to amplify beneficial chatter.
With the wide use of social media, your organization as a trending topic — whether good or bad — is inevitable. Do what you can to protect and control your reputation.
Elizabeth Ireland is managing director, Audit Services; leader, Social Services Organizations Sector, Not-for-Profit and Higher Education Practices for Grant Thornton LLP. Her email is Elizabeth.firstname.lastname@example.org. Zak Pierce is director, Advisory Services, for Grant Thornton LLP.