Exploring the issues that shape today's business world.

Social Media Gets Ugly

5 best practices for protecting your company’s reputation in the digital age. By Selena Chavis | Summer 2015

Summer Social

A decade ago, the phrase “going viral” didn’t exist. Today, in the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, it’s possibly the C-suite’s worst nightmare.

Take United Airlines, whose brand recently came under fire across social media and national news outlets when a pilot diverted a flight and made an emergency landing because an autistic teen allegedly “became disruptive.” In this case, it was the mother’s word versus the airline’s. While there are plenty of supporters on each side, negative light is negative light no matter who’s right.

“Your reputation is everything. If you’re in the financial space, for instance, your reputation is based on trust and confidence—both of which can take a long time to get back if damaged,” says Jason Maloni, senior vice president and chair of the litigation practice at Levick, a leading public relations firm that specializes in building trust and reputation management. Companies today, he notes, are especially vulnerable for two reasons: Operations are spread out across the country and globe, and there’s a tremendous two-way dialogue going on thanks to social media.

The advent of public review sites in particular has been a game changer in the world of reputation and brand management. “These sites place the power in the hands of the consumer,” says Samuel Thimothy, digital marketing specialist with Chicago-based OneIMS. “People can publically read and write reviews about products and brands all over the globe.”

Given that fact alone, the importance of a corporate social media policy is pretty much a given. But beyond internal policy drafting, how do you protect your company’s reputation in a fluid marketplace and position your organization for the future? Here are five best practices that can help.

1. Understand Evolving Dangers

The dangers of the digital marketplace have evolved from amateur hackers wreaking havoc on businesses for kicks to more sinister activities where professional data thieves may choose to blackmail companies by threatening to release damaging information, explains Doug Dvorak, president and CEO of Chicago’s SEO Solutions. From another angle, “cybersquatting” is a new term that involves the registering, selling or use of a domain name for the purpose of profiting off someone else’s trademark—an issue that increasingly is a problem when it comes to managing a company’s message and image.

2. Relate to Your Customers

“When things go bad and reputations are on the line, things can spread like wildfire,” Maloni cautions. Staying one step ahead of the message means knowing who your customers are and how to reach them. Are they on Facebook and Twitter, or lesser-known sites? This knowledge will help you strategize a response and get your message out faster.

The worst approach is to leave situations to happenstance. “Often, small companies just don’t have the time and resources to devote to activities that engage customers and solicit reviews,” says Thimothy. “But companies need to develop a dialogue with customers so that feedback—good or bad—happens directly with the company. When that kind of rapport is built, the company can then try to engage customers to provide positive feedback in public forums.”

3. Draft a ‘What If?’ Plan

It’s an extreme example, but a prudent one: Educational institutions now plan for the likelihood of an active shooter appearing on campus due to the increase in such occurrences. Similarly, identifying the potential for negative incidents surrounding your company and brand is critical. “The first step is to determine what likely—and unlikely—scenarios potentially could result in extreme, negative circumstances,” says Maloni. “Companies need to anticipate what can happen and how they will respond. It will define the face of the company in a crisis.”

4. Constantly Monitor the Web

Thanks to the anonymity the Internet offers, it’s incredibly easy for people to set up false names and profiles and spread false information. “If a company or individual sees that their name has been falsely claimed on social media sites, for example, the only way to get the accounts removed is to complain,” Dvorak explains. For that reason, he says, constant monitoring is critical.

While many small businesses don’t have the resources available for 24/7 monitoring, Dvorak suggests setting up free Google Alerts and leveraging other free monitoring tools as a first-phase approach.

5. Respond Swiftly and Well

Many companies make the mistake of hiding their heads in the sand when it comes to social media and public review sites. Don’t be one of them. “If you get a bad review, you need to address that,” says Thimothy. “Don’t leave things to chance.”

The best response is to make the situation right in person if possible, adds Dvorak. If not possible, a digital response may be necessary, but he cautions against feeding the problem with an ill-planned comeback.

Take Target’s now famous data breach. Maloni points out that the company was quick to release “facts” about the situation that later had to be changed on multiple levels. “In crisis situations where the public at large has been engaged, companies should be careful not to say too much too soon,” he cautions. “You can only lose your credibility once. That’s how a story snowballs from a one-day story to death by a thousand cuts.”

Above all else, Maloni adds, “The actions you take are more important than the words you say. You have to marry strong words with strong actions.”