Not for profit

Reputational risks of social media

The dangers of social media are clear. But the risk to a charity of not getting involved is far greater, says Carol Rudge, Grant Thornton’s Global Not for Profit Leader. And there’s plenty you can do to reduce the impact of negative trending.

Around the world, it’s taken only a few short years for social media to become a fundamental part of people’s lives. And it’s only taken a fraction longer for corporations, politicians and household brands both to realise its power – and sometimes to suffer the consequences of getting it wrong.

Not for profit organisations are not exempt from social media disasters. Placing an ill-judged photo on Facebook, posting a badly worded Tweet or suffering a high-profile donor complaint can have an immediate and long-lasting impact on your reputation and your fundraising. We all know that the consequences aren’t limited to geographic boundaries either. Should an issue go viral, it can quickly become a global one too.

It is possible that your organisation has already experienced some of these issues. If so, you will understand how important it is to control the risk of them happening again.

All this is not to say that you shouldn’t use social media – with 95% of Non-Government Organisations (NGOs) globally[i] agreeing that social media is effective for brand awareness, not doing so could put your fundraising efforts at a massive disadvantage. Instead, you should take a strategic approach to all things social, considering putting a prevention strategy and scenario-based response plan in place to limit any damage should problems emerge. Currently, however, more than two-thirds of NGOs globally do not have a written social media strategy[ii].

If you already engage in open and honest communication via social media, and your stakeholders are familiar with your values and personality, then you may have already started to create some of the trust that will help to protect your reputation, should it be threatened. Around the world, NGOs are busy doing this: not only do 93% have a Facebook page (followed by 77% on Twitter and 57% on YouTube), 25% post daily to Facebook and 24% Tweet between two and five times a day[iii].

But building up trust is not enough on its own to immunise you against damage – that takes a properly strategic approach. Here, we outline some of the strategies that are already working for many of the world’s most admired companies and not for profits.

Prevention is better than cure

First, understand your points of weakness – who are the social media users who can affect your reputation? Consider everyone connected with the organisation, from patrons to employees, trustees to high-profile donors, partners and even beneficiaries.

Naturally, you cannot control everybody’s social media activity, but make it a priority to set the best possible standards of online behaviour.

Second, develop a social media section within your employee communications policy. Clearly define the boundaries for employees, including a ban on posting non-public information on their personal accounts and restricting access to official social media streams. Define what is acceptable and unacceptable, whether in public or private accounts. And reference the policy in employment contracts.

Social media does blur the distinction between work and home, but formalising the potential for damage in this way can help to focus minds.

Third, ensure that everybody in the organisation knows about and understands the policy. Provide social media training for employees and Board members, encouraging its use while providing best practice guidelines on preventing negative impacts.

Understand what’s going on

You need to act quickly in the event of a negative post, but first you need to know about it. So monitor relevant social media accounts – not just that of your organisation, but also those of your peers, employees and other stakeholders.

Subscribing to social listening tools like Hootsuite or Sprout Social that tell you when the organisation is trending can be a really effective way of doing this. It not only ensures you know what people are saying about you – it also enables you to engage with them directly, demonstrating that you’re not just listening. You’re taking action too.

Be ready to respond

Have a response plan that’s ready to swing into immediate action at any time. It should first address practical issues, including responsibilities (particularly out of hours), contact details for all likely spokespeople and escalation procedures – consider at what point do you involve senior management, including the CEO, in planning and delivering the response?

That same thought process will help you decide what level of action to take, dependent on the scenario and the level of risk involved. Do you make an external statement, possibly involving your patron, your Board and senior management?

Do you go beyond social media to issue a press release? Do you offer a spokesperson to take media interviews? Do you hire a PR company to help? Do you launch a comms campaign addressing staff and other stakeholders, including known donors?

If the issue involves a post by a staff member, the plan must address factors including the post itself and its impact, the employee and any policy changes it might cause. 

If it’s a donor complaint, respond immediately and try to resolve the issue directly with them. Again, consider changing policy to prevent such complaints from occurring again. But be careful to ensure you don’t get drawn into an argument with an internet troll who only wants to make mischief; use your judgment about when it’s best to take no action at all.

After the event, once the dust has settled, be sure to evaluate your actions and your audiences’ response. If necessary, update policies and practices to include what worked best – and be sure to warn about any actions that might have caused the situation to escalate.

In that way, you can not only minimise the chances of future similar events from occurring – you can also enhance your organisational response to social media crisis.

How we can help

Our industry experts around the world work with all types of not for profit clients, giving them a solid understanding of the issues that are unique to the sector. We are passionate about helping you achieve your mission and goals. Please contact Carol Rudge to find out more about our not for profit services.

Find out more

To read more about planning your social media activities, as well as a review of other key trends affecting the sector, download Grant Thornton’s The State of the Not for Profit Sector in 2018 report.