Are you social media ready? Really?

“Hey people, we really gotta get a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. Let’s put something together right away. Have we got any videos we can throw up on YouTube? Everybody else is online!!!”

Companies and organizations of all kinds are thinking about jumping headlong into social media to join the hundreds of millions of people already there.

For many, this will not be simply a leap of faith, but a dive into potentially perilous and uncharted waters. While opportunity waits for companies and brands that have planned correctly, social media also presents considerable dangers to those who are not well prepared.

Online crises can happen literally with the click of a mouse. Today, when an angry customer wants to rant about a bad experience or a disgruntled employee can’t wait to share a nasty intra-company rumor, they will invariably log onto the Internet. More often than not, the target company or organization gets caught off guard.

When unprepared people struggle to figure out the proper response, the lag-time is often the thing that causes the most damage. And all too often, too-slow responses are accompanied by inadequate or botched messages, further compounding the ballooning crisis.

To effectively manage your online reputation in these situations, we advise you to recognize and embrace the following strategies:

1. Ignorance is bliss… (Not!) Intelligence is everything.
A common fatal mistake occurs when you simply post on Facebook or Twitter and go away, assuming all is well. Whether you do it yourself or assign the responsibility to your public relations firm, continuous monitoring of the entire social media universe is the only way to fully understand what people are saying about your organization. Without this knowledge, it is impossible to respond appropriately, properly and quickly… all of which are critical if you hope to avoid igniting an online firestorm. Messages matter. And ones created with a deaf ear can be deadly.

2. When it comes to response time, there’s the quick and the dead. Which will you be?
When confronted with an emerging controversy or breaking bad news, speed counts. Whether it’s taking rapid control of the rumor mill or calming down frayed tempers, the most difficult part of managing a crisis online invariably involves making the right decisions right now. While your response team wrings their hands, debates alternatives, discusses pros and cons and searches for the right things to say, people are furiously Tweeting and reTweeting, alerting friends by sending them URLs and forwarding blog and Facebook posts to anyone and everyone. Without a plan and protocols in place ahead of time, effectively getting a handle on the situation is nearly always impossible. Preparedness does not have to be elaborate or expensive, but it must create the decision-making structure on which a good response can be constructed—in minutes, not hours or days. The faster correct messages get disseminated, the quicker the organization takes control of the crisis.

3. One good way to avert disaster: Set parameters now.
It’s a new world. Today, there is a high correlation between social media risk management and effective employee communications. Social media guidelines that advise employees how to conduct themselves online are critical. (Note that the key word here is advise, not command.) In a world where everyone has a voice, employees must be made aware they are brand ambassadors. Saying the wrong thing at the wrong time in an online forum can seriously damage a company’s or brand’s reputation via reduced sales and lost market share, or by creating legal, regulatory or other contractual problems. Important: while your social media policy should establish norms and set parameters advising employees how to conduct themselves online, you must understand that the days of ironclad policies and prohibitions are over. Smart organizations are well-served by having social media public relations counselors review their existing internal policies in light of today’s workplace realities.

4. You can’t make friends when you really need them. So do it now.
Companies and organizations with established ongoing public relations initiatives, in nearly all cases, are able to weather any crisis better than those without one, and this is more than 200% true online. Engaging in social media should be purposeful. You’re not there to socialize, but to create a network of key influencers for your organization. Loyalty, trust and confidence are the most precious assets any company or brand can possess. Have a strategy and plan to acquire them.

Without proper preparation in advance, social media involvement creates risks that must be managed. Failing to prepare for them is simply irresponsible brand management. EMA’s Reputation Management Services group can help you incorporate effective reputation management strategies and crisis preparedness into your overall marketing plans.