Lawyers in wonderland: In-house legal counsel, social media and crisis preparedness in 2015

Lawyers really matter a lot in a company’s crisis preparedness. In addition to being sources of legal insight and strategy, they’re routinely looked to for advice on risk identification, planning and mitigation. They deploy their legal acumen to guard confidential information and protect the company in venues far beyond the courtroom.

But one can be right on the law and still lose big in the marketplace. Take, for example, the case of an employee termination first leaked on Reddit – perfectly legal – that triggered a coast-to-coast consumer backlash and forced a public apology from the company after days of controversy. Or the investment firm called out by a blogger for what is commonly called a “pump and dump” scheme. How does a company possibly anticipate such situations? And if they do and prepare accordingly, what role do lawyers play in that process? How should in-house legal teams involve themselves today in corporate crisis preparedness programs, permeated with the arcane ways of social media?

A Weber Shandwick survey of US and UK in-house counsel last summer found a big disconnect between reality and lawyers’ perception of their readiness for corporate crises involving social media, which is to say virtually all of them.

One example: surveyed counsel reported an average span of 38 hours as realistic for their companies to activate a crisis plan in response to an escalating issue or crisis online (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Sina Weibo).

Thirty-eight hours.

In that time visitors to YouTube will watch 7 billion videos. Some 560,000 babies will be born. A fast food restaurant chain could close down (as one does every 38 hours or so, on average).

The world doesn’t wait 38 hours for anyone or anything. It hardly waits 38 minutes. This legacy mindset in the counsel’s office poses a significant threat to companies today.

Nine out of 10 survey respondents selected “not at all likely” when asked “what is the likelihood of a social media issue or crisis impacting your company and causing legal risk in the next 12 months?”

That’s in the wake of an ongoing litany of data breaches, both massive and minor, across the economy, bringing with them an inevitable flood of embarrassing online rumors, recriminations and private videos, followed by petitions and hashtag campaigns. The survey highlights a need for in-house lawyers to raise their crisis planning game in line with online. On the to-do list, based on the results:

  • Break down silos between corporate groups and business units, because everyone will be affected;
  • Predraft holding statements for contingencies;
  • Train people for frontline duty with media, key customers, regulators and suppliers.
  • Assign teams and rehearse roles through simulation workshops (such as Weber Shandwick’s firebell)

To learn more about the perceptions of in-house counsel and reputation defense, read our findings in “Social Media’s Role in Crisis Management: A Call for Greater Legal Vigilance.”

Social Media Crisis Infographic

Lauren is a digital strategist and crisis preparedness lead for Weber Shandwick, based in Minneapolis. She is the global product manager for firebell, the agency’s proprietary multimedia crisis simulator, and has produced 40+ crisis readiness simulations for dozens of international companies in the food, cosmetics, travel, insurance, government, healthcare and banking industries. Lauren is also a lead global resource for drafting issues/crisis response plans, specializing in integration of digital media best practices with overall strategy and processes.