Planning for Social Media Usage When an Accident Occurs

It is early in the morning on a weekend, and your mobile phone rings. You answer the phone and learn that a serious injury has just occurred at one of your remote facilities. As you slowly regain some control over your shock and emotions, you pick up a copy of the crisis response plan you keep on your nightstand and begin following the action items as they are listed.

As your response efforts progress, you receive an urgent message that your employees are sharing details about the accident via their social networks. Some are claiming that the injured worker is at fault for bypassing a safeguard while others are stating that your facility is an unsafe place to work. Next you hear that photos of the accident scene are being uploaded to these sites as well. You consult your crisis response plan, which has been in place for decades and is reviewed annually for possible enhancements, and learn that it does not address any response steps to manage social media. What should you do?

During an emergency situation, such as a serious injury, most companies rely on the training that they have conducted, which covers specific crisis response protocols to address the many simultaneous needs that may arise. The primary concern should be for immediate medical care for injured workers and to ensure that priority is given to keep other employees and communities as safe as possible. However, once the ambulances have cleared your parking lot and some of the chaos calms down, your attention will shift toward operational concerns, accident reporting and damage control.

Over my career as a loss control consultant, I have crafted, reviewed and helped implement countless crisis response plans. Yet, until recently, I never expected to include policies and procedures to attempt to control social media communications when a serious accident or crisis event occurs. Thus, this article shares the lessons I have learned regarding the need to control social media.

I am not a big user of social media, nor am I a lawyer. Thus, I do not profess to be an expert on social media simply as a result of my research into the subject, nor should this article be considered legal advice. Rather, I intend to heighten awareness and understanding of the need to address social media controls throughout safety and health programs.

TYPES OF SOCIAL MEDIA

Before anyone can begin to comprehend the impact that social media can have during a crisis event, it is important to have some basic definitions about what types of social media are referred to in this article. Blogs are basically websites that are often maintained by a single individual or organization with the purpose of posting comments about a certain topic or to build personal diaries. Forums (or message boards) are designed to be online discussion sites for many contributors to post opinions and comments. Many blogs use forum software applications to allow visitors to respond to commentary, which takes on a form of dialogue.

Twitter is a dominant service provider on the Internet that uses microblogs to facilitate social networking and communications. Contributors’ postings are called tweets. Facebook and MySpace define themselves as social networking websites that connect people at work, at school and at home, and allow users to post not only text, but also images. LinkedIn was established as a social network geared primarily for business networking applications. Flickr and YouTube allow members to upload and share videos and images with anyone on the Internet. Keep in mind that they should eventually screen uploads for graphic content, such as gory accident footage, and partition it off to age-verified users only.

While all of these social media sites and applications are useful to keep in touch with friends, family and coworkers, they pose a serious concern for businesses when they are misused to share confidential, critical or sensitive information to the public. Perception is reality to most people and once information has been posted via a social media site, it is difficult (if not impossible) to have it removed. Once the damage has been done, it is beyond challenging to correct misinformation, incorrect statements or false accusations.

BEFORE AN ACCIDENT OCCURS

Businesses, with the assistance of insurance partners, should conduct risk evaluations regarding social media exposures and should evaluate trade secrets, financial information, specific hazardous exposures and use worst-case scenarios to better determine their specific need for social media controls. Companies should be encouraged to avoid underestimating their potential risks and should understand that the controls they have in place may not be adequate to manage social media once an event has occurred.

Businesses should take time to review or to create social media policies. The Internet provides countless sites that share social media policies, and http://ow.ly/q84E is a good starting point since it links to several public access policies that can be used as guidelines. Social media usage policies have a wide range of flexibility in regards to the guidance they give employees. Some of the policies are strict and prohibit any use of social media to disclose or discuss company issues. These types of strict policies allow companies to conduct in-depth monitoring of social media sites and have zero tolerance policies in place to deal with violators. The other extreme is reflected in companies that have liberal policies and who actually encourage the use of social media by their employees in an effort to highlight their business and to market themselves as cutting-edge participants in the new era of communication.

These types of liberal policies tend to be written with more usage guidelines, which helps employees make ethical decisions about their presence on the sites and the types of content that they are expected to post. I believe that policies that fall in the middle between the extremes may be most beneficial to most businesses. Policies that are too strict and place a total ban on participation or policies that are too lenient and encourage full participation with no monitoring do not seem practical to implement. Basic elements of social media policies include:

  • Focus on what employees are allowed to do but be clear about prohibited activities.
  • Encourage employees to be honest about their true identity and encourage them to only post information that is within their area of expertise.
  • Attempts should be made to keep personal and professional lines clearly defined, and employees should be advised to avoid making personal opinions about company-related issues or announcements.
  • Define employee responsibilities and make it clear that employees are not authorized to act as company representatives on social media sites in regard to accident investigations.
  • Clearly define what your business considers to be trade secrets, confidential financial information and other nondisclosure items, such as details of an ongoing accident investigation.
  • Identify the process that the company will use to share information with media following any crisis event.
  • Identify the public information officer and clearly outline his or her role and responsibilities.
  • A process for the company and employees to discover and notify management of concerns or breaches of the established policy.

 

One challenge in creating a social media usage policy is that many other policies and procedures may be affected or impacted, such as new-hire orientation, employee handbooks, codes of ethical conduct, nondisclosure policies, computer device usage policies, emergency action plans and accident investigation protocols. A business should consider potentially affected policies and ensure that the creation of a social media policy works in conjunction with existing policies and procedures.

Following the creation of a social media policy, businesses should be prepared to educate the workforce about the elements of the policy and ramifications for violations of the policy. Additionally, employees should be made aware of the potential personal liability that could arise out of misusing social media postings. If an employee engages in communications that at a later date injure or hurt another party, then there is potential for personal liability under tort law. Making false statements, sharing personal theories or making slanderous comments about a company, an individual or the details of an event could be damaging and such postings could become discoverable documents during litigation.

Businesses should consider maintaining a corporate social footprint. Recently, businesses have been placed under scrutiny for not participating in social media communications. A good example is from a nationwide retail company that basically refused to comment on customer complaints when they were not received via traditional media, such as e-mail or a letter. Failure to be prepared to monitor, communicate, respond or participate in a dialogue that arises on a social media site could be damaging to an organization. My research indicates that companies should create business accounts on social media sites and should be prepared to monitor and engage in communications that may unexpectedly occur.

DURING AN ACCIDENT INVESTIGATION

Immediately following a crisis event it is critical to send out communication reminders to all employees. They should be reminded of the social media participation expectations and should be encouraged to avoid any communications about the details of an event/accident until all investigations have been completed. Internal company investigations, insurance-related investigations, compliance agency investigations and personal defense investigations may take several days or longer to conclude. Until all are completed, specific details should not be shared with the public in an effort to avoid speculation and misinformation. Premature information regarding potential fault or causation factors should be avoided in all forms of electronic communication.

Additionally, employees should be encouraged to remain socially and morally responsible and should refrain from posting pictures, videos or comments about the details of a serious accident on social networking sites out of respect for their injured co-worker(s) and the affected families. Today’s ability to jump onto the Internet and share a headline news item with the world seems exciting; however, adherence to company policy, personal responsibility and good judgment should take precedent. The possibility of providing incorrect information or causing harm to another party should always be considered.

Companies should also immediately intensify monitoring of social media sites to identify breaches of policy and misuses of postings by employees. If it is discovered that postings are providing misinformation, then the company must decide whether it wants to intervene and attempt to provide correct information, if it wants to simply participate in the dialogue to provide opposing comment or simply to remain in a monitoring mode to gather information that has been posted. A social media response team could be organized to make decisions related to the desired level of corporate involvement.

It is advised that when an event occurs that will most likely result in litigation, a company should contact its attorney immediately. Seek advice regarding how to conduct an investigation under the direction of your attorney in anticipation of litigation. Many of the electronic documents generated as a result of your internal investigations may become discoverable evidence in court. By following your attorney’s specific direction, many of these documents may be considered to be protected under attorney-client privilege and may not be used in court against your business. Remember that your employees’ postings on social media sites will be difficult to defend, impossible to remove and could cause harm to either party in a lawsuit.

FOLLOWING AN EVENT

After the dust has settled and the immediate crisis has passed, evaluate how well your management team reacted and how well your social media policies were followed. An evaluation of the effectiveness of your company’s social media policy should be conducted and improvements made based on the findings. A management management-level team could be assembled, and this team could discuss the actions that were taken and identify any failures of the policies and procedures in an effort to look for opportunities for policy enhancements.

A timely release of information to the public by your designated public information officer is critical. Consider which media forums work best for your situation while keeping in mind that traditional television news and newspapers are not the only forum that should be considered. If your organization has a social media footprint, then consider how best to release findings and facts through those sites that you feel will best reach your viewing audience.

At some point, you will need to identify individuals who violated your social media policy during the crisis event and decide about how to address their behaviors. The level of corrective action taken should be proportional to the seriousness of the violations. Disciplinary actions could include litigation against the employee(s) for slanderous or erroneous statements or suspension or termination for violations of company policies. These types of corrective actions are relatively new, and companies that discipline or terminate employees for violations of social media policies are facing new and untested interpretations of law.

CONCLUSION

I hope this article has prompted a heightened awareness for the need to prepare for social media management before, during and after an accident or crisis event. The new social media environment we live in is full of unique legal cases, and the need for companies to prepare for managing social media communications in our safety programs has become clear.

Recent legal cases involving social media usage have been filed regarding wrongful termination, discrimination in hiring practices, corporate requirements for joining social media sites, product endorsements from paid celebrities, false marketing claims, insurance claims fraud, failures to reply to customer complaints, violations of nondisclosure agreements, damages incurred from

prank postings and trade secret and confidential financial data disclosures.

It is only a matter of time before we begin seeing more cases related to the misuse of social media during accident and incident investigations. Begin planning today, prepare or review your social media usage policies, educate your workforce regarding their personal responsibilities in participating in social media communications and be prepared to manage and respond to social media postings from a crisis response perspective.


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