Jeanine Karp|Jun 23, 2014

The EU’s Court of Justice may have forced Google to give its citizens a say in what pops up when someone searches their name by upholding what is known as “the right to be forgotten,” but there is still no such thing as a “Get Out Jail Free ” card on the web.

As the debate about the validity and impact of the ruling rages on, it’s a good reminder for anyone with a public persona or brand to have a solid digital crisis communication plan in place.

No ruling can keep up with powerful combination of the 24/7 news cycle and the Internet’s ability to aggregate information, especially when tied to a trending topic. As Forbes contributor Emma Woollacott warned in her recent article, “The Internet is a many-headed Hydra, and content from a delisted website frequently pops up again somewhere else.”

This is true even for Mario Gonzalez, the Spanish lawyer behind the “right to be forgotten” law, who sued to have a 16-year-old newspaper article on a real estate auction connected with some old debts removed from his Google search profile. Though he won his case, the evidence will actually still remain online – it’s just that Google and other search engines will now be required to sever the links that allow users to find it.

Like comedian John Oliver aptly pointed out, thanks to the attention paid to this case Gonzalez and his debts from 1998 will not soon be forgotten.

Even if Kristy Hammonds and Michael Seltzer, the amateur filmmakers/prankster behind the infamous Dominos gross-out YouTube video, were ever able to clear all record of the incident from their Google profiles, the hard lesson of how quickly negative social media fodder can damage your image is not something to ever forget.

We can ponder if (or when) U.S. citizens might get the “right to be forgotten,” but even then information would only be removed if the impact on the individual’s privacy is greater than the public’s right to find it.

So as Google and other search engines wrestle with a process for defining and removing “inadequate,” “irrelevant” or “excessive” material per the ruling – which most likely won’t include links to news stories –  companies should be prepared for reputation management at all times. So how do you accomplish this?

  • Develop a plan specifically for a social media crisis – Yes, you can borrow some best practices from your company’s traditional media crisis plan, but key elements and overall governance protocols need to be focused on handling an online crisis. This also means including specific guidelines on who will lead communications in the wake of a digital crisis, which may be personnel from outside your traditional public relations team.
  • Test, adjust and readjust your strategy – Remaining nimble is paramount in any crisis, especially one being driven online. New developments may require an immediate response and change in direction. That’s another reason having a solid team in place, with the autonomy to react as needed, is essential.
  • Have social media policies in place and train your employees on digital media best practices – Develop a clear and concise (no more than 2 pages) social media policy that gives employees the freedom to enjoy social networks in their personal lives while spelling out, with no gray areas, what constitutes privileged or inappropriate work-related material that should not be shared. This should be supported with corresponding ongoing employee training that reviews the policy with staff, highlighting key online dos and don’ts. True, there are mechanisms in place to take down tweets, Facebook posts or other social media commentary that you later regret, but once something is on the Internet it probably won’t go away (as politicians who deleted tweets praising the release of Sargent Bergdahl learned).
  • Monitor online reputation – In the digital age, investing in effective listening tools to stay abreast of all online chatter is just the cost of doing business. How comprehensive this infrastructure needs to be depends on the scope of the business, but like your overall social media crisis plan is something that should be reevaluated on a regular basis. Monitoring online chatter, identifying issues and being ready to respond immediately is, and will remain essential. Even the possibility of having your “dirty laundry” forgotten by the world’s largest search engine doesn’t negate the need for a solid public relations strategy.

The bottom line is there is no get out of jail free card online, as the Internet never forgets. But with a thoughtful approach to social media and a solid digital crisis communications strategy, you won’t need to go looking for one.


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