By Mark Richards, Senior Vice President

Nearly half of Legal Counsel at Fortune Global 1000 companies have not had professional training on how social media impacts their company. 

These days, with instantaneous 24-7 communications and widespread use of social media, corporate reputation threats can emerge and spiral into full-blown crises quickly. One essential member of the risk and reputation management team is in-house legal counsel.

Today, Weber Shandwick and KRC Research released a new study, “Social Media’s Role in Crisis Management: A Call for Greater Legal Vigilance.” Findings are based on our recent survey of one hundred high-level corporate attorneys across the US and UK who provide counsel on risk and reputation management to their Fortune Global 1000 companies.

We found consensus in legal departments on the importance of reputation, and significant awareness of the capacity of social media to turn a minor problem into a major crisis. From a legal risk perspective, corporate attorneys are especially concerned about the improper sharing of confidential information on social media, inflammatory or critical comments about their company going viral on social media, and data breaches.

But, most seem to have a false sense of security about the risk. Only one in 10 thinks it is likely that a social media crisis will cause their company a legal risk in the next year. Perhaps this is because most (79 percent) have not personally experienced a social media crisis during their tenure.

How prepared are corporate attorneys to assess and respond to a social media crisis? Nearly half (46 percent) say they have not had professional training (legal or otherwise) on how social media impacts their company, and nearly half (47 percent) did not spend any time in 2014 planning and preparing for a social media crisis. In fact, only 21 percent say their departments are very involved in planning for a social crisis.

Although majorities (63 percent) say their companies have a social media crisis communications plan and are monitoring social media in one way or another (71 percent), many (29 percent) are doing nothing at all to monitor activity involving their companies on social sites. Only 40 percent conduct planning or preparedness drills.

Not surprising then, confidence in their company’s ability to respond is middling. Only nine percent say their company would do an “excellent” job. Most say they would do a “very good” (40 percent) or “good” (39 percent) job.

When we asked those who have experienced a reputational crisis in social media what the most difficult part of managing it was, they talked about the difficulty of assessing the threat correctly, determining the appropriate response and in which channels, and–most of all–getting everyone internally on the same page and dealing with the speed at which a crisis moves.

How long do corporate attorneys estimate it would take their company to activate a plan of action? On average, 38 hours! That’s enough time on social for a little localized brush fire to turn into a raging global wildfire.

The large majority of attorneys (75 percent) agree that most reputation-damaging crises are self-inflicted. There’s good news here. That means most reputation-damaging crises are preventable. Our colleagues at Weber Shandwick offer a variety of tools to detect, prepare, and respond to the crisis you hope you’ll never have. From a researcher’s perspective, there are also some simple things corporations (or legal departments within) can do. For example:

  • Have a Reputation Roadmap in place. Benchmark where you stand with your key audiences, know which reputation drivers matter most, and monitor opinions over time. In times of unexpected crisis, you will have the ability to gauge changes and impacts.
  • Have a tested message template in place for the most likely crises. Understand your audiences’ mindsets, what they will want to know, and how they are likely to respond. This will allow you to respond quickly, even as you adapt and refine your template.
  • Have tools in place, such as KRC’s Social Sandbox, to pre-test general content in a safe social space. Testing messages and content before it goes live can prevent headaches.
  • As part of your crisis communications plan, have a tool in place to rapidly assess if–and what–your key audiences have heard and what they’re thinking. For example, by having a crisis survey template in place, we have been able to activate and launch a survey within hours and provide results on a rolling basis not long after.