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Brand lessons from the @NatSecWonk Twitter debacle

There is only so much you can do to prepare for stupid, as the recent dismantling of the @NatSecWonk account proves, but there are steps you can take as a company to safeguard the brand.

natsecwonk

natsecwonk

If it happened to the White House, it can happen to your brand

If a high level national security staffer with top security clearance cannot be counted on to behave appropriately on social media, you can be certain that there is absolutely no way you can completely eliminate the possibility that someone in your company will do something at some point that will embarrass you or tarnish your business’s reputation. There are a few things you can do to have a chance at preventing such a problem, but with no way to eliminate the risk, so let’s take a look at your options once such a thing happens.

Jofi Joseph is in the news this week after admitting to being the person behind the Twitter handle @NatSecWonk. Over the last couple of years, the anonymous account became fairly well known in political and national security circles for caustic and insulting tweets aimed at high level staff and officials and revealing, at times, insider knowledge of Obama Administration information. Until he was fired last week, Joseph was head of a non-proliferation section in the White House and had been involved in recent negotiations with Iran over nuclear weapons.

Strategy: aggression, separation

The White House has responded aggressively by not only taking the obvious action of confronting and firing Joseph, but whether based on fact or used as a tactic to protect the Administration’s reputation, “official sources” and an “individual briefed on the matter” have also gone after Joseph, claiming he is suspected to be behind another anonymous account called @dchobbyist that reviewed exploits with escort services as well as other topics. While named sources are attached to the primary accusation, no named source has taken credit for linking Joseph with @dchobbyist and in Joseph’s response apologizing for his @NatSecWonk activities, he does not address the seedier accusations.

Since the situation certainly does not make the administration look good, they have employed a strategy of attacking and impugning Joseph’s character to separate themselves from him and his actions and to decrease his credibility. If they do not know for certain that he is attached to the escort-focused account, the move is simply unethical, but we will likely find out more in coming days about the second account which probably has equal chances of belonging to either Joseph or some Secret Service agent.

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When you find your brand under attack

When you find your company under attack – whether from inside or outside – it can be entirely appropriate to counter-attack, just as at least some portion of the White House attack on Joseph is very justified. But counterattacks can be risky and sometimes arise as a response that makes the counter-attacker feel better, but accomplishes little. Particularly when counter-attacks involve regulatory audiences, it is advisable to seek detached consultation by individuals familiar with the audience you are trying to influence.

The administration also used the time-honored tool perfected by candidate Bill Clinton in his first race for President of getting out ahead of the story and revealing the issue prior to it being revealed by others, although some accounts indicate that the White House responded to inquiries by reporters when Joseph’s Twitter account closed last week. Either way, by getting out on the story early, the administration was the primary source of information and was able to frame the story from a favorable perspective.

Beyond these individual tactics that sometimes apply, though, are some general concepts to keep in mind as a serious issue or crisis has begun in your business.

  1. As quickly as is practicable, inform your primary stakeholders on the basics of the situation, paying particular attention to any safety or security information that needs to be shared. At this stage, you may know only the basics yourself. Be honest and reveal as much as you can without harming yourself further.
  2. As you learn more, keep your stakeholders informed as to the impact and meaning of the situation and show them that you have a deep enough understanding of the cause of the problem and the ability to keep a similar problem from happening in the future.
  3. After addressing the basic, critical elements above, work to maintain or repair your company’s reputation. At this stage, you will use whatever strategies are appropriate to the situation from the counter-attack described above to apology, to compensation and other options.

An important final stage is to review not only the cause and initiation of the problem, but to study your response to it and how you could perform better if another problem occurs. The more you plan ahead of time, the less likely the problem will occur and the more likely you can contain or diminish the damage.

And don’t be a wonker. You’ll eventually get caught like @NatSecWonk.

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Written By

David Holmes, owner of Intrepid Solutions, has over 20 years experience planning for, avoiding, and solving crises in the public policy, political, and private sectors. David is also a professional mediator and has worked in the Texas music scene.

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