It’s a given that we look to social media for insight into opinions on our organization reputation. This is usually looking at members of the public and the media. There’s another element that should always be a part of this bigger reputational picture and that is the actions of our staff online.

It is important to note that regardless of the reputational risk, it’s always useful to know what the law is when it comes to social media and things like freedom of speech and labor laws. Needless to say, as a communicator, it is imperative to know your specific role around reputational risk and the potential damage that actions online can cause. Always seek legal advice before taking public action.

Reputational risk from an internal standpoint is often one of the most overlooked threats to our communication strategy. While it may stem from a number of factors that are beyond the purvoy of the public information officer, it will often be the PIO that has to deal with the fallout from social media. For something that could be easily avoided, it can often be the most damaging thing to happen to any organization.

There are things that everyone can and should do within an organization, but it helps to be prepared and have the right tools and procedures in place to counteract anything that could happen. It’s important to understand why internal issues arise and look for ways to tackle them as part of a wider team.

Divisive events

If you are dealing with an emerging situation in the moment that is of a contentious or divisive nature then you need to be cognizant of the impact this may have on the people at your organization. If what is happening is likely to stir up strong feelings and reactions then there needs to be something in place to monitor for anything being posted online that could have a reputational impact on your agency, school or department.

This is where, as a communicator, your overall awareness of key events and public sentiment comes in. What are the triggers for people where you work and what could they potentially say online that will bring your agency into disrepute?

Short term events usually cause a spike in emotions and rash actions that are seemingly out of character whereas there are longer term issues that stir up a propensity for online expression over time that can increase in vitriol or urgency. Typically, when there is a groundswell of support for something such as staffing issues, it’s easy to have an image tarnished in a matter of minutes online. 

It has happened where people on duty have posted comments, photos and other inappropriate material during a critical incident which has caused more media interest than the original event. Time is of the essence and being aware at all times of what’s going on will stand you in good stead. 

Staff safety

When you consider what could turn into a story, it’s important to be aware of changes in behavior of staff. Welfare should always be first and foremost, but sadly it is often the welfare issues that generate the most coverage. From a staff safety point of view there are number of considerations that should be conveyed internally. This can include;

  • Looking out for one another and raising concerns when you see something online
  • Ensuring there are procedures in place to report any concerns
  • Having a clear take on anything posted by someone in distress
  • Posting photos of children and vulnerable people who are family members
  • Clear identification of a home address or vehicle with plates showing
  • Being able to flag anything around information that could compromise security of others

These issues are easier to outline in training and policies as there is usually a good, logical argument for them to be in place - to protect people from harm. However, opinion is never based on true fact and is harder to reconcile when it comes to freedom of speech. This is where a holistic approach to safeguarding needs to be adopted. 

There are cases that come up every so often where people in uniform are posting photos of themselves on dating sites or apps and these inevitably lead to embarrassment when the media posts the photos alongside their profile.

Equally, overzealous nights out that make it online when people don’t behave as appropriately as they should are commonplace and while there should be privacy when off duty, unfortunately social media in it’s most pernicious form makes us vulnerable not just as individuals but also from the organizational perspective.

Pre-employment and during training

This is one of the most important times to get ahead of issues. As a PIO it’s unlikely you’ll be involved in screening processes, but as soon as someone is starting their role and going into training (particularly in law enforcement or similar roles) this is when they are most likely to be sharing information online. It could be good, indifferent or negative but this is when inadvertent comments can lead to real issues. In addition to trying to ensure you have a slot in the training program early on, you need to be aware of the people on the courses. There may be great case studies to work with from a media point of view, but there could also be people that are not happy or have fresh eyes on potentially contentious issues that have otherwise gone unchecked. 

Post disciplinary actions

It’s inevitable that people will be let go. How this is handled can result in online brand-trashing. Once someone is no longer a staff member, it is harder to do anything about it but you can be prepared for what they’ve said about your agency. Any claims made online should be fully investigated so you are prepared with lines to take for when the media comes knocking. Some may be factual and some may be venting. In either case, facts must be established and clear lines should be created that communicate the values of the department and are a part of your wider communication strategy.

Prepare with policies and training

Having robust policies in place that are clearly communicated is vital. It is important that people know before they might consider posting something that there are repercussions (although be sure that if your policy states people will be dealt with, that they truly are or this will create mistrust internally).

Policies alone never work. Training and clear communication about why this policy is in place is vital to minimize risk. Any edict without explanation is always harder to implement and will often come up against resistance.

What you can do

  • Have the right tools to see what people are saying
  • Implement training with regular, light touch refreshers
  • Ensure management buy in and support for when the inevitable happens
  • Be prepared with responses to as many questions as you can think of

With everything else that a PIO has to do, it’s hard to keep on top of reputational risk from internal sources. Guardian Alliance Technologies provides a surprisingly affordable solution that allows you to flag problems before they become a crisis. Whether it’s pre-hiring or while in post, you can be rest assured that you’ll be informed about inappropriate content and comments so you’re in front of the issue and can take control of the narrative before it takes control of you.

October 12, 2021

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