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tony wilson

It doesn't matter how many presentations I give on the topic of social media and reputation management, at least once a month someone does something profoundly stupid online and the episode is shared on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. Without fail, the incident turns into a public relations disaster and the organizations involved are left to deal with the fallout.

All too often, the 'stupid button' is pressed before the brain is engaged, and lo and behold, a sexist, racist, insulting and/or bullying tweet, post, photo or video is suddenly available to anyone who wants to view it or share it. The more outrageous the post, the more it will be shared.

If the shared content is perceived to be ethically or morally reprehensible, it will adversely affect the reputation of the poster, and may even result in civil or criminal liability. But it may also create a PR crisis for the organization he or she belongs to or works for. The matter may well be judged by one of the toughest, and most fickle courts in the Western world: the court of public opinion.

Depending on how long the PR disaster plays out, a career-limiting tweet, Instagram photo, YouTube video or Facebook post that in any way links the 'offender' to your organization, may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in professional fees for lawyers and crisis management consultants alone, as well as untold damage to your reputation with customers, clients, suppliers and potential new recruits. Worst-case scenarios are numerous: Customers may stop buying your goods or services; there may be demonstrations outside your offices; on-line petitions may be circulated; and talented employees may leave.

In some cases, a PR crisis lasts a day or two and is solved by either firing the offender, or through 'tearful' resignation. For example, Elizabeth Lauten was a communications director for a U.S. Republican Congressman, but after posting derogatory and disrespectful comments on Facebook about Barack Obama's teenage daughters at an event, she resigned.

Companies and organizations should be aware of the fact that their employees, directors and officers are under scrutiny 24/7 due the prevalence, accessibility and size of everyday smartphones that can easily capture bad behavior. This applies to companies small and large – news organizations, charities, police forces, political parties and government agencies.

Thus, it doesn't have to be an employee who uses social media improperly. It could be an employee who is caught on a video that leads to the PR crisis (and their eventual firing or resignation).

Air Canada had to deal with a video filmed by a passenger of baggage handlers at Pearson Airport throwing suitcases into a transport vehicle from a height of 20 feet (and missing a great deal of shots). The baggage handlers were fired when the video clearly showed the conduct. But would anything have happened if there had been no video?

The RCMP is still tainted by the 2007 death of Robert Dziekanski, the Polish immigrant who died after having been repeatedly tasered by RCMP officers at Vancouver International Airport. The matter was filmed by a bystander, and has led to perjury charges against the officers involved due to major discrepancies between their previous testimony at an enquiry, and the video itself.

The video needn't be filmed by a customer or a bystander with an iPhone. It could be a security camera in an elevator. Just ask Ray Rice, former running back with the Baltimore Ravens, who was indefinitely suspended after having been filmed by a security camera violently assaulting his wife-to-be Janay Palmer.

And you don't have to be a sports celebrity either. Desmond Hague was the CEO of a multibillion-dollar catering company Centerplate. His career ended when he was filmed repeatedly kicking a Doberman puppy in an elevator in Vancouver. The video went viral and an online petition demanded his firing (with over 189,000 signatures). No CEO, president or director wants to issue a press release about his or her departure that begins with the words: "I am ashamed and deeply embarrassed..."

Just last week, Hague was charged with two counts under B.C.'s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. If convicted, he could face a maximum fine of $75,000, up to two years in jail or up to a lifetime ban on owning animals.

But summarily firing or penalizing those all those involved in a social media crisis may not always be the right strategy. Currently there is pressure to expel or otherwise severely penalize 13 members of a Facebook group of dentistry students at Dalhousie University as a result of at least six demeaning and disgusting posts about female students. But the Halifax Regional Police have so far determined there was no criminality in what the students did.

Expelling all of the students for merely being "members" of a Facebook group (which some "members" may not have regularly followed, actively participated in or cared much about) is an excellent way for Dalhousie to be on the receiving end of a multimillion dollar lawsuit which it might well lose.

When livelihoods and careers are at stake, professional organizations, universities and other public bodies must tread carefully and ensure their discipline and decision-making procedures comply with the principles of fundamental justice and the Rule of Law, and not the justice that demonstrators and media pundits demand.

So, what can companies and organizations do? First, establish social media policies that are part of an employee's employment contract, or a member's Code of Conduct. Specify what's acceptable and unacceptable, and the consequences if the policy or code of conduct is breached, particularly if your organization's brand is associated with the conduct.

Secondly, Facebook, YouTube and other companies will respond to take-down notices if your brand or copyrighted material (i.e. your logo) is shared on a video without your company's consent. Google, Facebook and other social media companies do not want to be involved in copyright infringement actions. Facebook's procedure for reporting copyright infringement is available here. YouTube's procedure is available here.

Third, develop an enterprise risk management strategy that assesses possible risks to the organization's ability to achieve its strategic goals. Sure you can anticipate loss of key personnel, a data loss or breach, a regulatory change, a flood or fire, or a market meltdown, but also plan for a potential reputation management/PR crisis. Assess how other organizations have dealt with the their crises and what the costs were for budgeting purposes. The gold standard in crisis management has to be how Maple Leaf Foods handled its listeria crisis in 2008.

Finally, get good crisis management and legal advice so you don't impulsively overreact. Rough justice is just a euphemism for no justice and you could pay dearly if you don't treat offenders fairly...even if they did kick a dog.

Tony Wilson is a franchising, licensing and intellectual property lawyer at Boughton Law Corp. in Vancouver, he is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU), and he is the author of two books: Manage Your Online Reputation, and Buying a Franchise in Canada. His opinions do not reflect those of the Law Society of British Columbia, SFU or any other organization.

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