In the summer of 2006, Wayne Watts, a senior vice president and associate general counsel at AT&T, was in the middle of defending the company's customer service practices to industry regulators who were examining the company's takeover bid for BellSouth. His 21-year-old son Jared, meanwhile, from his job at a Cingular Wireless store (then an AT&T subsidiary and since renamed), blogged that mergers inconvenience customers, and called the company's policies "abusive to the customer," "inappropriate," and said they "violate [his] personal beliefs." The Washington Post printed the criticisms and the embarrassing conflict was a public relations problem at the least. At worst, it could have scared BellSouth away from the merger altogether.

What if you run a company, and your child's behavior online has the power to get you into hot water?

1. Be a Concerned Parent
Remember, you are a parent first and foremost-or at least you should be. Deal with your family before considering your shareholders. With the Watts case, above, Jared didn't set out to hurt his father or himself. But if your child is writing something self-destructive or harmful to you or your family, address that issue: It could be a sign of more trouble to come. Explain why even seemingly innocuous actions can be dangerous-you are a public figure, and therefore careless online musings have greater-than-normal ramifications for you and your job.

2. Remove the Offending Material, if Necessary
If you are unable to do this directly, or your child refuses, contact the sites your child posted on and ask them to take down the material. MySpace, for one, has a policy in which a parent can call the company at any time to delete the profiles, comments, or pictures posted by children under 18.

3. Call Your Lawyer
If your child has broken any laws, released confidential company information, or inadvertently embroiled the company in a regulatory issue, seek legal counsel. Your lawyer can advise on how best to navigate any legal or regulatory fallout from the incident. (Postscript: In the case of the AT&T imbroglio, the merger ended up going through.)

4. Assess Quickly Whether the Incident May Impact Business as Usual
If you suspect that the online incident might impact business, or that there might be publicity surrounding it, be prepared. Have your investor relations, public relations, and legal teams get together to draft a statement to be distributed internally, particularly to salespeople and those who commonly deal with external parties, about what exactly to say when questioned about the online activities.

5. Be Transparent and Cooperative When Asked About the Incident
Do not stiff-arm the media-they are likely conflicted about reporting on the behavior of a family member of a public figure. Instead, limit your statement (when asked-only in the rarest of circumstances should you make a wide release your statement) to a simple reaction to the news. Your announcement should be attributed to yourself and characterize how you feel about what happened (embarrassed), offer an apology to offended parties, and resolve to address it privately. Wayne Watts told the Post, through an AT&T spokesman: "I care very much for my son. And like many fathers and sons, we have differences of opinion on many subjects."

6. Understand That Your Parenting Prowess May Affect Some People's Perception of Your Business Ability
There will be those who will say: "Well, if he can't control his children on the Web, how can he run this company?" They are the minority, but they do exist. The best way to convince them otherwise is to address the issue, but then remain focused on the task at hand and not become distracted. When presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani's daughter, Caroline, was revealed to have been endorsing Barack Obama online, it was probably cause for merriment in the headquarters of his opponents. But Giuliani addressed it directly at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, and after that, didn't let it become a further distraction. Strategically speaking, the isolated incident is unlikely to affect the former mayor's bid for president.

SOURCES: Eric Dezenhall, C.E.O., Dezenhall Resources; Chris Gidez, director, Risk Management/Crisis Communications, Hill & Knowlton; Bill Keegan, executive vice president and director of crisis and issues management, Edelman; and Michael Robinson, senior vice president, Levick Strategic Communications, and a former S.E.C. public affairs and policy chief.

 

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