By Michael Canfield, originally published in Buffalo Law Journal/Buffalo Business First on Jul 24, 2017, 6:00am EDT.

When Robert Carr started Carr Marketing Communications in the mid-1990s, he made sure the company was on the internet. In the nearly 25 years since then, he’s seen a lot of changes, but he’s been able to adapt with the changes to websites and social media.

“I always felt that the next generation of communication was the internet,” he said. “That’s why we felt so strongly that our firm should be on the internet almost immediately.”

His hunch was correct, and he’s seen the dialogue around brands and companies go from a few comments on investor websites to social media sites such as Twitter and Yelp, where comments and status updates can be viewed by hundreds, thousands or even millions of people.

“It was really a new frontier,” he said of the early days of the internet. “Now everything is out there.”

For companies dealing with a crisis that is exploding on social media, it’s important to speak with “one voice,” said Brendan Lillis, a senior associate at Phillips Lytle LLP who works with the firm’s crisis response and management practice area.

“You have to make sure that the message that is being disseminated through social media and other areas, like to the public and the press, is coming from the top,” he said. “It’s been thought about and there is a dedicated focus and a team. This is the team that should be handling (the issue) and no one else should be speaking on behalf of the company.”

Lillis said companies must pay attention to what can be controlled and what cannot.

“With bad things happening — bad social media campaigns, bad press — a lot of times the response can make things worse,” he said. “The message has to be measured in a way that is careful and targeted and hopefully not going to make things worse.”

If a person is being defamatory, libelous or writing fake information, those are aspects of a crisis a company may be able to control, Lillis said.

“There might be things you can do to stop them, depending on what platform they’re in,” he said.

Other things may be more difficult to control, including honest, negative reviews of a product.

“There’s not a whole lot to do about that,” he said.

Carr said it’s critical that a company have a good reputation in the community so that if and when a crisis occurs, many people have had a good experience with the brand.

“You have to start with a strong brand reputation,” he said. “You have to build that brand with quality people, with quality products, with quality service. You need to show that you operate in the public interest. You need to show that you’re open and transparent.”

When a company has a strong brand, advocates of that company will step in during an “attack,” he said, and relate their positive experience with the brand. Carr encourages clients to speak to the person behind an attack, if they can locate him or her.

“You have a conversation with them offline,” he said. “It’s one-to-one. You know, ‘Why are you doing this? Is there something we have not done to your satisfaction? Let us see if we can correct that.’ ”

Philip Pantano of Pantano & Associates LLC said it is a mistake to disregard the impact that social and digital media have on people’s lives. It’s imperative to have a policy in place to deal with issues that may arise on the mediums.

“You can’t ignore it,” he said. “It’s everywhere and impacts any business that has a product or service to offer.”

Companies should not only engage with customers on social media but scan comments to see what people are saying about the brand.

“You know that people are going to be sharing information in some regard,” Pantano said. “You can never turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to the growing presence that social media and digital media have in our everyday lives.”

Being ahead of the curve is key, according to Lillis. Having a plan in place allows a company to act effectively and immediately when an issue comes up.

“We try to educate our clients to the best we can to get them to be proactive,” he said. “We’d much rather have plans and policies and some level of preparedness in place so when a crisis does arise, there’s no scrambling going on.”

During a severe crisis, Carr said, “it’s all hands on deck. You’re going to be on it consistently, and that’s the only thing you’re going to be doing.”

Employer limits on employee use of social media vary from company to company, Lillis said. “It really comes down to what makes the most sense for that particular brand,” he said. He gave an example of a company that goes through a data breach and an employee talks about it on social media. That’s something to be avoided, he said.

“You certainly want to try and have some education and some control over preventing those things from happening,” Lillis said. “It’s so important in the initial phase of a crisis, to the best extent possible, that you get out in front of a message.”