Would you know how to manage an escalating social media storm? Are you confident in your plans and policies for responding to, and managing, a prominent ‘scandal’ in your charity?

The Charity Risk Barometer 2019 (produced by Ecclesiastical and Third Sector) listed reputational risk as the biggest perceived risk over the long term. It was also included in the top six medium-term concerns as identified by senior leaders of 200 charities. The concerns around protecting reputation are prevalent across the sector, particularly in light of recent widely reported charity scandals and the risks developing as a result of the evolution and use of social media.

Over two articles, we will set out tips and considerations when planning for effective reputation and crisis management. This first article focuses on reputation management in the digital age, whilst our next article explores engagement with regulators in the wake of a crisis and policy considerations for effective crisis planning.

Social media savvy

Did you know that there are 1.49 billion daily active users of Facebook? Modern technology has led to a new level of internet accessibility, which is both increasing and varying, potential reputational risks.

Complaints or concerns once dealt with privately can be catapulted into the public domain when made online and can even become ‘viral’. This enables the press to report on stories very quickly, and ultimately an escalating media storm can have a significant detrimental impact on both immediate and long-term funding for a charity.

Our top tips for dealing with social media complaints and concerns are as follows:

1. Determine the appropriate response

Not all posts will justify a response – do you think engagement will smooth over the situation, or simply fuel it? Would it look worse if you failed to respond?

When necessary, you should consider the use of block and delete functions to remove posts made to your organisation’s page and/or to prevent further posts. This is most appropriate where posts are offensive, harassing or threatening in nature. You may wish to give the user a warning before blocking them.

2. Make the conversation private

If you decide that a response is appropriate, you should move the conversation to direct messaging or email. Alternatively, you might arrange for a representative to contact the poster to discuss their concerns. This should help to avoid a spiralling public exchange.

Nonetheless, being seen to engage is important. We would suggest a brief public reply to acknowledge the post and to ask for more details via direct message or email.

3. Maintain a professional tone

Remember that your response may be read hundreds or thousands of times – would you respond differently if you reflected on that before clicking send? A considered and thoughtful approach is key – issues can escalate if you make a less-than-professional response in the ‘heat of the moment’.

4. Have clear internal policies

We recommend having clear policies for staff authorised to use your organisation’s social media accounts. In the Charity Risk Barometer 2019, it was reported that fewer than 1 in 3 small charities had a policy in place, meaning that expectations and guidance for staff who are publicly representing the charity may not be clear.

Social Media Policies should cover areas such as:

  • How often social media accounts should be checked, and/or posts made;
  • Set out the content and tone expected on different sites (for example, LinkedIn tends to be used by professionals or recruiters, whereas Facebook is more social) and include example posts;
  • Outline what actions and responses are appropriate – i.e. when to delete/block, including dealing with spam, and when to escalate concerns to management. Provide example responses to posts, including those that are challenging and/or complaints; and
  • Highlight the importance of data protection when posting online.

Destructive defamation

Cases such as Jack Monroe v Katie Hopkins in 2017 have publicised that online material can be subject to legal proceedings under the Defamation Act 2013. There are two forms of defamation – libel (in writing or print) and slander (spoken word or gestures).

Charities may face critical and strongly-worded online comments; however, only some would amount to defamation. To establish a claim in defamation against the person posting the offending statement (and/or the author), the following must be shown:

  • An ability to bring a claim. Generally, the claimant would need to be an individual or a legal entity (i.e. an incorporated association);
  • That the statement was made about them – would the ordinary person know who the post was referring to?
  • That the statement had a defamatory meaning – does the statement tend to lower them in the mind of average members of society generally?
  • That the statement has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to reputation. If the claimant trades for profit, they must show serious financial loss.

Several defences may be open to those posting and/or authoring defamatory statements, including truth, honest opinion, public interest and privilege.

Defamation is a particularly technical and complex area. When deciding whether to pursue a claim in defamation or when faced with potentially defending a claim, we would recommend that you seek immediate legal advice.

Conclusion

The way in which charities are expected to engage with beneficiaries, donors and commercial partners alike is evolving in light of the digital age. Unfortunately, this comes with challenges and risks. Nonetheless, we hope that by following a considered approach to using social media, supported by clear policies and knowing the law around defamation, you will be best placed to manage your charity’s reputation in the online arena.

Remember to look out for our next article on engagement with regulators and effective policies for crisis management.

For more information

For more information about social media issues, please contact Amy Callahan-Page.

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this article, it is a summary, rather than a definitive statement of the law; advice should be taken before action is implemented or refrained from in specific cases. No responsibility can be accepted for action taken or refrained from solely by reference to the contents of this article.