It’s a massive irony.
A big part of a lawyer’s job is to measure and manage risk. Every lawsuit is a threat; every deal negotiation has a downside to be assessed. Yet lawyers are ill equipped to grapple with the one salient risk area that, in today’s world, supersedes most others. We’re talking about the digital and social media that pose savage daily threats to brands and reputations.
True, some young lawyers do have a head start. They were born to this contemporary world; they came by this online language in utero. Yet the lawyers in charge – and that certainly includes most GCs – have been typically raised and trained in a world of paper. They’re being blindsided by viral eruptions because they themselves never knew what questions to ask of their social media teams, and their corporate communications departments. As a result, they don’t know what, if anything, to report to the board. When is a tweet a risk? An online video a threat? Or a #Boycott to be taken seriously?
Typically, in this area, GCs will ask the only question they feel comfortable asking: Have you got this covered? Just as typically, communications staff will say “Yes,” and that’s the end of the conversation. Ask board members, and they will tell you over and over, “We found out about this problem way too late to be able to do much to help beyond prayer.”
When GCs ask the right questions, they, in turn, can adequately advise other officers and directors steering the ship. While the list below isn’t comprehensive – all these questions do regularly evolve – it is a solid foundation for wisdom and early warning.
1. How Are We Tracking Our Potential Adversaries?
Start by asking corporate communications, digital, and ERM this very broad, open-ended question. Listen to what they tell you; are their answers at least somewhat reassuring or do they seem threadbare? The answers should include understandable language about tracking on the web, in social media, and on video. They should be able to tell you about their “cross platform” tracking – that is, the ability to see things in real time across any digital and social media. For international companies, be sure to ask about tracking in multiple languages. What happens in Tokyo is driven by different issues and needs to be addressed before it becomes an issue in New York.
2. How Do We Redefine Due Diligence?
Today due diligence extends way beyond the seals of approval that your law and accounting firms typically stamp. Online due diligence is now all about risk terms, those verbal red flags that define a company’s – and its supply chain’s – ongoing liabilities (e.g., “E. coli” for meat processors). The company must be thoroughly monitoring these terms, across search engines and social media, as a matter of standard practice. Who is using them in their online collaterals? Who is buying key risk terms for advertising, and how are they using them in that context?
What are plaintiff’s firms that have sued companies in your industry talking about online? They need the web to recruit clients so they will always leave clues as to what’s next. Is one of your products on their hit list? What are your industry regulators or legislators talking about or, more important, listening to? They’re now much more impelled by online opinion and much less receptive to your lobbyists. What about NGOs? They live online, and your due diligence should cover their fundraising letters as well as their websites and social media.
3. How Should We Rethink Enterprise Risk Management?
Until now, corporations have heavily invested in ERM professionals as historians. Now we must ask them to be weathermen – what does the road ahead look like? There’s a good likelihood that, of all your teams, the brand professionals are the ones who, by far, best understand how the social media work. So, introduce them to ERM as well as corporate communications; institute periodic strategic meetings. The overriding goal is to develop a risk model consistent with the model in use to grow the brand online. To that end, we need to knock down silos – the 70-plus year-old model of separating critical functions that worked so well until it didn’t. Advocates do not see issues just as legal, financial, brand, or social. They see them as movements and use an interactive approach. So should you.
4. What Do Social Listening Tools Say?
Chances are, this topic has never even been discussed in a C-suite or board meeting, yet it’s as important as your share price. Social listening tools (and there is a plethora (from Sysmos to Brandwatch, Radian6 to Talkwalker, just to name a few) tell you 24-7 what is being said on social media and who is saying it. People are communicating about you right now on Twitter, Facebook, or reddit. Some of these folks may be angry, irrational, and they may be few in number – but keep them on your radar screen as huge oaks do grow from such seeds. Think GMOs, fracking, Keystone: All of these issues started first as outliers before they became some of the most contentious issues in the country. By using a social listening platform, you can set queries that track your brand plus relevant or sensitive keywords. For example, the #boycottdelta fiasco of late could possibly have been avoided if Delta had been monitoring keywords for their brand name and #boycott.
5. Who Are Our “High-Authority” Influencers?
Ask corporate communications to identify the well-read/well-respected influencers writing about your industry and/or company. Ask them if they have a personal relationship with those influencers, as they do (or should) with their contacts at the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal. If they don’t, you don’t. Enlisting influencers who embody your corporate identity in appearance, demeanor, values, and voice will provide brand visibility, awareness, and add a human element to your brand.
Remember some of the best-read newspapers in the United States aren’t newspapers at all. As of 2015, The Huffington Post had 50 million unique visits while The Wall Street Journal, with the highest print circulation among U.S. newspapers, has only 2.3 million. While traffic is a measure, it’s not the only measure. What is truly important is understanding the unique needs of your audience, their behaviors, and where they consume information.
Ultimately, you must understand your target audience and reach them where they are. For a widget manufacturer, the high-authority industry blog may only have 10,000 visitors, but they’re worth as much or more to that manufacturer than either the Journal or the New York Times. In some cases, the influencer may be a professional on LinkedIn with a column or a notable Instagrammer, which means their influence is wider still. Ask your communications folks to dig deep into a handful of these relationships. Remember, use your peacetime wisely and get to know these influencers now, before they are needed.
6. What is the Content Strategy?
You’re only as good as the content you push out. Audiences want compelling content that resonates. For example, video is an extremely powerful storytelling tool. In fact, YouTube is the second-most popular search engine, and consumers are 39% more likely to share content if it’s delivered via video. Plaintiff’s firms are famous for making short, emotionally packed, and incendiary videos. Do you have video content that emotionally communicates your brand, using human faces and stories that make your message powerfully shareable? If you do, these must include people, not just images. Traditionally, industry makes beautiful videos about facts or emotions but don’t include real people telling real stories. You do not want your legal strategy to enter courtrooms where potential jurors (and judges) are already aware of the emotional appeal and credibility of your critics. The same is true for Facebook and Instagram; there too, you need emotional and personal images to influence your audience.
7. What’s the UX?
It’s important to think of the user experience (UX) from initial interaction through the end of the funnel. What is the experience for visitors when they come to the website? Is it intuitive, easy, and smart? What is it like when they call into your 800 numbers? When was the last time these connections were tested? Almost everything customers think about you is driven by their personal experience. If they are just a conduit to profit, they will know it and not serve in your army in the coming battle for hearts and minds. When good companies with great UX come under attack, nothing staunches the early criticism like an echo chamber of customers, shareholders, and third parties who say “That’s not the company I know.”
Consumers will continue to camp out for days to buy the latest Apple product, or they’ll permanently tattoo their bodies with the Harley brand logo, provided their experience continues to exceed expectation. When was the last time they did that for you?
8. Are You Optimized?
Understand how allies and adversaries are talking about you and use this insight to market and position yourself. For example, what are the key terms for which your competitor has optimized? Who owns the top positions in search engines for your business, or for risk terms for you and your supply chain, or for terms people will use next? Create a strategy that accounts, not only for your business and key terms, but for those of your competitors as well.
Risk reduction and recovery in the Information Age – quickly being replaced by the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Age – is not about defining risk by materiality. It’s about really looking into the hearts and minds of the people who may become your next harshest critics and understanding what motivates them long before they become a movement.
Richard Levick, Esq., @richardlevick, is Chairman and CEO of LEVICK, a global communications and public affairs agency specializing in risk, crisis and reputation management. He is a frequent commentator on CNN and SiriusXM.