An indiscreet employee shares too much information about his or her organization. Havoc ensues. Then, PR pros step in to contain the crisis.
The twist is the warp speed and reach of social media, which can instantaneously deliver confidential, insensitive, or damaging information about a company or staffer to the world - and media.
No one learned that lesson more painfully than insurance giant Aflac when it found itself quelling a Twitter fire in March: its pitchman, comic Gilbert Gottfried, tweeted jokes about Japan as monumental crises unfolded.
He posted 10 tweets about Japan, where, it turns out, Aflac does a lot of business. When executives arrived at the office the next Monday, says company spokeswoman Laura Kane, they assessed the situation. Within an hour, a press release was issued and Gottfried was fired. Aflac has already found his replacement, Minneapolis sales manager Daniel McKeague, via a social media-based search.
"We are educating representatives of Aflac that things that are tweeted are in 'ink,' that they will forever be available on the Internet," adds Kane. "This education is being done through such outlets as the company's intranet and supervisor communications."
Social media guidelines were in place before the Gottfried crisis, she notes, but "we can't dictate good judgment. It should be obvious to employees and representatives that insulting customers in their time of need is inappropriate under any circumstances."
According to Tim Dyson, CEO of Next Fifteen, "Twitter doesn't necessarily create a new risk, it magnifies an old one.
"You'll never eliminate people from using Twitter or Facebook for malicious means," he adds. "The guidelines at the most fundamental don't differ from traditional communication: make sure no one tweets without running it by another person, frequently change account passwords, make sure people are current on training, and establish a mechanism to be proactive and reactive."
General Mills, for instance, maintains an aggressive effort to train both existing employees, new hires, and key agency partners to reinforce its guidelines through case studies and exercises that drive the points home, says director of brand PR Greg Zimprich. It also maintains a hotline and relies on the eyes and ears of its 1,000-plus employees to report any problems, he adds.
Jeff Rubenstein, social media manager at Sony Computer Entertainment America, which was recently subject to a massive external cyber attack, says, "Rather than create distinct 'Twitter' or 'Facebook rules,' we adopted more general guidelines that could be applied to any electronic correspondence."
He adds that while social networks grant anyone the means to communicate "louder and further than ever," staffers understand they aren't authorized to speak on their employer's behalf.
The benefits of speed
Speed is especially crucial in the social media age. "You have 10 to 20 minutes from when it [a crisis or event] happens before your phone starts ringing," says Tac Anderson, VP of digital strategies at Waggener Edstrom.
A rapid reply, he says, even "No comment," buys time to come up with a plan of action in the next few hours and find out what's being written on social media sites.
Proactive efforts include selecting the right person or team to maintain company social media offerings, particularly because the very setup of social media encourages personal communication and a lack of formality, adds Anderson.
Younger staffers are often tapped to oversee a company's social media offerings because they are more adept at social media than their bosses. However, inexperienced workers may lack the maturity to be discerning.
"The idea of an intern having keys to the corporate cupboard is just crazy," says Anderson. "Why would you let them manage your Twitter feed?" asks Dyson.
An extra on Fox's hit program Glee tweeted a plot line of a future episode and was fired.
A New Media Strategies employee sent a tweet on Chrysler's official feed that included profanity and disparaging remarks about Detroit drivers. Chrysler fired the agency.
On his final day with the company, an intern using the Twitter account of fashion house Marc Jacobs criticized its CEO for being "picky" and complained about his job.
Designer Kenneth Cole issued an apology on his Facebook page for a tweet linking uprisings in Egypt to the launch of his spring line.
Indiana deputy attorney general Jeff Cox lost his job over tweets, including "Use live ammunition" against pro-labor demonstrators in Wisconsin.