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Social Risk: An Emerging Threat to Reputation

December 3, 2020

We have long thought about risk as falling definitively into one of three categories: Strategic, Preventable, and External. Organizations tend to understand the impact these kinds of risks have on their operations and are pretty adept at mitigating them and responding to them. Dealing with a data breach, a failed product launch or an industrial accident follows traditional, straightforward playbooks for crisis response.

Social Risk is an emerging, different category of risk that we’ve identified, and those traditional playbooks no longer apply. Social Risks arise from impacts to populations and are driven by influences within each of us. These human-centric risks tend to take on a negative tone in conversations, especially online. They often have political undertones and focus on divides between “haves” and “have nots.” Social Risks include public dialogue around LGBTQ issues, racial justice issues, climate change, the pandemic, and other movements based on human conditions.

The public’s expectations of corporations and brands are higher, and writing a check to a cause or saying “that’s not our lane” won’t cut it anymore. Even a well-crafted statement is not enough. Actions must follow words.

In this webinar, we begin to unpack Social Risk and its implications for risk management and crisis communications. We analyzed more than 4 million data points including social media conversations, news stories, and blogs to measure public sentiment around Social Risk. From this analysis, we were able to make some initial recommendations, including a number of steps you can take right now to address Social Risk within your organization. These actions are summarized in our Social Risk Action Matrix, which you can download here.

Pressured to Speak? Consider These Four Things First

More than I’ve ever seen, corporations and organizations are being pressured to weigh in on societal and political issues. I see great social risk in commenting, in not commenting, and in the timing of any comment. We’ll be exploring social risk in this space in the coming weeks. 

For now, I’d like to share four specific things that are important to consider when deciding on whether, when, and what to say in response to social pressures:

  1. Be crystal clear about your values.
  2. You can’t say something bold, drop the mic and walk away. Wading into today’s social issues means committing yourself and your organization for the long haul.
  3. Is it possible to narrowcast your position? Think about who matters most to you and the best ways of reaching those audiences; and
  4. Is the time right? 

it’s not necessary to dive right in just because something has happened and social pressure is building on you to say something.

Read more about “Pressured to Speak?”

Crisis and Purpose: Giving Corporations Permission to Do What’s Right

Corporations increasingly are being viewed as having obligations towards society that they must meet if they want to succeed. As a crisis communications and reputation management firm, we spend a great deal of time thinking about our clients’ missions, values, and what they stand for. Then, we encourage them to live up to their values in a crisis and help them communicate these to the public.

Focusing on a social purpose will make organizations much more crisis ready and better able to weather the storm when things go wrong. Our Equation for Crisis Success dictates that an organization’s mission and core values plus an effective chain of command creates the speed necessary for successful crisis response.

An organization that has social responsibility built into its mission will find it much easier to stay true to its mission when faced with a crisis. 

Read more about “Crisis and Purpose”

Filling Your Reservoir of Goodwill

When you have a situation where you get sideways with public expectation, it’s this reservoir of goodwill or positive impression that people have of your organization that gives you the room to maneuver, to tell your story, and to make amends.  During these difficult times is when your investment in building and managing your reputation really pays off. Otherwise, you are going to want to draw from the reservoir only to find out that it’s run dry.

whatever you do, it has to be authentic and sustained.

One example of that was a recent question from a client.  June is LBGTQ Awareness Month and, each year, many corporations switch their Facebook and Twitter logos to rainbow flags to show solidarity and support for this community. Around the 10th of June, this client contacted us and asked, “Should we do this as well? Should we change our Twitter logo?”

“Well,” I answered, “that depends on three things.”

First, was this a cause they genuinely supported?

Second, was this something they were going to do every year?

Third, was this something they would keep doing even if some people complained about it?

If the answer to all three was yes, then they should go ahead and do it.

For them, this was the beginning of a process to think and talk about this issue which was fine: we all need to start somewhere.  However, my point was that in order to generate this reservoir of goodwill, their efforts would have to be sustained and consistent. 

Read more about “Filling Your Reservoir of Goodwill”

Embracing Social Media During a Crisis

Getting your arms around social media in a crisis can be incredibly difficult, but Facebook, Twitter, SnapChat, and the like are just the latest examples of an accelerated media landscape. Don’t forget, when 24-hour cable news came onto the scene, organizations had to quickly adapt to a news cycle that was no longer based on broadcasts at noon, 6pm and 11pm.

In the same way that organizations adapted to cable news, we have to adapt to social media.  In fact, we shouldn’t just adapt to social media: I think we should embrace it, especially in a crisis.

Social media allows you to quickly update the situation on a ‘one-to-many’ basis without the need for an intermediary like a reporter.  Your organization’s Facebook page, Twitter feed, or YouTube channel is a fast way to get your message out. Moreover, these channels often push newer posts to the top of a user’s feed, so they should automatically see the latest news.

The goal is to communicate with those stakeholders who matter most, explaining your mission and values and doing it as quickly as possible. Social media is just another medium for this albeit a very fast-paced one.  So don’t try to get ahead of social media. Stick to a schedule that fits you and the situation.

Read more about “Embracing Social Media During a Crisis”

When the Protest Comes to You

The summer of 2020 has been a summer of protests, unrest, and social risk. Whether or not your organization takes a stand on any particular issue, protests may still come to you. What we’ve seen in recent months is these gatherings can occur at any time, anywhere, and they can escalate quickly.

We’ve talked before about some of the tactics you can take when you’re aware that a protest against you is planned. In those instances, the protesters are coming because of something specific your organization did or did not do. Instead of focusing on those kinds of protests, I want to talk about a greater social risk: spontaneous, organic protests around larger societal issues. 

These occur without much warning. Although they’re often not targeting any specific business or organization, they can and do still put organizations at risk.

So, what do you do when that protest comes to you?

First of all, while you can’t prevent a protest, you can plan for it. If you can, designate an area for protesters to gather. You should coordinate with law enforcement and your own security team to have a plan ready if a protest escalates. You should communicate your plan to your employees. They need to know what to say. They need to know who to call for help if a peaceful protest becomes a more volatile situation.

Read more about “When the Protest Comes to You”

Saying Hard Things – Focus on a Bigger Picture

Saying hard things inevitably disappoints people because we have acted in a way contrary to their expectations. We cannot write magic words that will keep people affected by an adverse decision from being upset.

Too often, leaders hold communicators to a standard of getting everyone to love us. It’s already a high bar when you’re doing everything right. It gets much higher when you’re not meeting expectations. If you’re in a crisis, or if you’re saying hard things, you should not be looking for love. That is not the bar.

The bar is understanding. You want the people to understand why you’re taking these actions. Strategic communicators, especially in times of crisis, need to appeal for understanding from the reasonable people in their key audiences. Focusing on a bigger picture helps a responsible organization craft its message for reasonable people. 

Be conscious of what your critics are saying, but don’t let the trolls and haters dictate how you communicate. Four quiet thumbs-up are far, far more important to your long-term reputation than one loud thumb down. 

Read more about “Saying Hard Things – Focus on a Bigger Picture”

Watch our Social Risk Webinar Here!

Filed under: Blog | Crisis Planning


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.