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PR lessons from Labatt reaction to Magnotta photo

Clean bottles emerge from a bottle washer at Labatt London Brewery, April 19, 2011.

GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

While the case around suspected murderer Luka Magnotta continues to capture attention, an off-shoot story quickly rose to the top of Twitter trends on Tuesday.

As part of one of its stories, the Montreal Gazette ran a photo of Mr. Magnotta prominently featuring him holding a bottle of Labatt Blue. In an effort to distance its brand, Labatt Brewers of Canada's legal team threatened legal action unless the photo was taken down, which sparked a rash of discussion on social media. (It has since issued a statement saying it has dropped the matter.)

This incident provided an interesting glimpse into how quickly social media can shape the opinions of millions of people, and highlighted some key things brands should be thinking about from a communications perspective.

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It's a good practice to evaluate communication policies and procedures regularly to ensure you are prepared if something does come up.

Keep these things in mind:

Anything can end up on the Internet

While social media offers amazing opportunities for brands to connect with customers, the other side is that it is so easy for internal documents or communications to be shared with a large public audience. We are seeing more and more of this, even in highly regulated industries like banking.

Create a process

Escalation charts are common in call centres, but the same type of thinking is commonly overlooked when it comes to social media. When preparing to bring a brand on to social media, spend some time establishing a set of concrete guidelines to ensure the right people respond to the right issues with the right messages. If your organization already has customer service representatives on the phones, get them involved as soon as possible; chances are they have already prepared for many of the issues you may face.

Take a deep breath

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It may be crisis communications/issues management 101, but this is one of the most important things to do, and even more so now, given how easy it is to fire off a tweet. Think through your response to any issue, no matter how small, and make sure you've considered all perspectives before acting.

Decide if it's worth it

This is without a doubt the most important decision to make when something comes up. It is nearly impossible to predict what is going to capture the very brief attention span of social media users, but you should do your best to try.

Traditionally, the decision about responding to a major issue would be made by a combination of the most senior public relations and legal staff. With the ever-increasing number of touch points a brand has, it may be beneficial to get more people in on the decision, especially from the digital area. Community managers and website or social media analytics teams may have a different perspective on what could happen.

The first response should be to try to protect your brand, but in some cases that may mean doing nothing at all.

Essentially, it was Labatt's response that fuelled the story. It may not have attracted as much attention had it not been noticed by a few very influential commentators early on, but it is almost certain that Labatt wouldn't have been trending up if it didn't ask for the photo to be taken down.

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Special to The Globe and Mail

Mia Pearson is the co-founder of North Strategic . She has more than two decades of experience in creating and growing communications agencies, and her experience spans many sectors, including financial, technology, consumer and lifestyle.

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