Social Media in Highly Regulated Industries – Advice and Insight

Last Thursday, the Council of PR Firms hosted a fantastic session titled “Optimizing Social Media Efforts in Highly Regulated Industries.” If you want all the “lessons learned” from the session, skip down a paragraph. But before I start, I want to editorialize a bit. I went to the session full of excitement of what I would learn, and of course I was not at all disappointed. But I was also reminded of three truths about regulated companies:

  1.  They are, by nature, conservative.
  2. “No” is almost always easier than “yes.”
  3. Experiments can elicit punishment as opposed to celebration.

Ahem. Thank you. And now for the program.

Melanie Wells @wellsmelanie from Forbes deftly moderated, opening the day with the reminder that social media is like a cocktail party, replete with stern, humorless chaperones and as well as drunken revelers. Social media honchos – Marc Monseau @JNJCOMM from Johnson & Johnson, Nina Card from ScottTrade and Kelly Thul @kellythul from State Farm Insurance represented the client experience. And to put the buttercream in the icing, Dorian Cundick from the Corporate Executive Board and Gary Kibel @GaryKibel_law for law firm Davis & Gilbert provided superb best practices overviews. The Council’s Client Advisory Committee, sponsor of the session, should be proud.

Corporate staff members in highly regulated industries have often used the words “compliance” and “regulators” as shields – diversionary tactics they use whenever anyone utters the social media topic. If the session’s speakers are living proof that social media CAN happen, IS happening and MUST happen in these industries. Excuses don’t cut it. Here’s what they said:

On getting started:

  • Your organization needs, before anything, a social media policy – now required by both FINRA and the FTC
  • Protect your corporate name, make sure you have the rights to use it where you want to. If someone’s squatting on it, get it back.
  • When you have lots of market facing employees or independent contractors – agents, brokers, financial advisors – you’d better be training them to use the right channels, know the compliance “dos and don’ts” and provide best practices.
  • Intercompany partnerships are the name of the game. Marketing/communications and HR and  legal MUST work together to draft policies, create training, and ensure compliance.
  • Make sure you capture/retain/archive everything.

On coaching management:

  • Train senior management on the specific tools if they have not been exposed to them already, or find someone who is already social media conversant to lead the way.
  • Find them reverse mentors.
  • Get internal (employee) tools up and running first.
  • Explain that retail customers now treat twitter like a phone call – if you don’t respond, you lose them.
  • Don’t give up – sometimes a “no” is not a solid “no,” but a request for education and/or permission from compliance.

On regulatory input:

  • Understand the difference, if you do not already (ask your counsel!) between commercial speech and protected speech.
  • Regulators are using enforcement actions – like Ann Taylor and Reverb Communications – to educate people on what not to do.
  • Don’t expect much hands-on, active guidance from the regulators. When you have specific questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to staffers – or have your PR firm or lawyer do it – but don’t expect a clear answer.

On the “how”:

  • Engaging with people on social media platforms in a regulated industry is not very different from typical media relations – in certain areas you can comment freely as a company spokesperson, and in other instances you need approved, prepared statements.
  • You need guardrails to educate people on how best to respond. Some institutions use a “red – yellow – green” light framework for sorting messaging responses.
  • Treating people kindly – like bloggers and customers – pays off in attitude turnarounds, improved loyalty and often advocacy, whether you are a regulated entity or not.
  • When you are dealing with a “drunken reveler” – such as a dissatisfied customer with nothing but time to hammer on your company all day – he or she may be violating the channel’s terms of use. If that happens, reach out to the specific channel (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube) either directly or through your agency.
  • Be proactive.  Don’t be afraid to go ahead and interact with the rabble rouser head on – remember, thousands of loyal customers are watching. In other words, “If you are silent you will be sorry.”

When in doubt:

  • There’s “nothing new under the sun” — when responding to a tough situation, follow the same procedures you would in the bricks and mortar world; you should be OK.
  • Remember, no one has it knocked. Everyone thinks that everyone else knows more than they do.
  • Don’t use your regulated status as a reason not to engage. It’s a cop out.
  • When all else fails, compliment the attorneys.


To reach Abby:

Phone: 212.840.0088
Twitter: @abbycarr
LinkedIn: Abby Carr