I have always been a big promoter of social media as a way to increase business. I’ve talked about it, read about it, and written more than I can tell you. But in all my years online, I had never personally been the brunt of the ugly side of social media. Until one day – I was.

Instead of a paper trail, there was a trail of online comments. There were IMs, text messages, e-mails, blog comments and even a website that all quickly led to some serious (but thankfully short-lived) issues.

Has it happened to you? Maybe a blogger you know writes something about you in a blog post that really stings. Or worse, someone you don’t know deliberately attacks you or your reputation in public–and permanently–through search engines. You may have been through something similar. No one is exempt-it happens to individuals, but it attacks small businesses too. And if you think it stings personally, imagine the blow it can deal to your small business.
That being said, I want to make this clear: A social media policy in your workplace should not shut down social media activity. To the contrary, I believe a policy should encourage activity. A policy should also protect your business and employees from getting into trouble with the law (issues like libel, defamation, leaking of confidential or damaging information, etc). It should inform employees what is acceptable and what is not, before an issue arises.
Things can blow up quickly when you least expect it.

Most people treat social media policies like long-term care insurance-they don’t think about it until they need it. By the time you need it, it’s either too expensive or too late. When something goes wrong online, it can catch you off-guard. If someone targets you or your business, it might start while you’re asleep. The next thing you know, it’s in the news headlines. And if you respond poorly, you have a fire you can’t put out (just ask Nestle).

Before you know it, the negative blog post or comment is one of the first things that comes up on Google. If you wait too long and a lot of people comment on the post, it can be very difficult to get the reference removed or displace it in search engines.
Inexperienced businesses may take situations too casually in the beginning. It’s better to address issues early on. Name the people at your company who should be informed, and plan who should respond. Make sure employees know the plan so they don’t address the attack individually. This is not a job to leave to your intern.

Decide what to do when you’re attacked online.

Let’s say someone writes something damaging about your business as a comment on your Facebook page or blog post. How would you respond? Don’t retaliate no matter how strong the urge.

Here are three possible responses:
Acknowledge the complaint, then transition to a statistic or how you are helping clients. Then offer to address the issue privately. This is the option I’d recommend for most cases – but it depends on the situation.

Delete the comment. If the comment is on your Facebook page, your blog or another site you moderate, you could delete the negative comment. If you have a policy, refer to it. Write something like, “This comment has been deleted because it violated [state reason].” I’ve deleted comments that were personal attacks on people mentioned in my post or for vulgar or explicit content. Sometimes I only delete part of the comment, always explaining why. Be careful though, as deleting comments can turn into a PR nightmare.

Ignore the negative comment, post or review. If the person is just being belligerent (it happens) and they aren’t going on a rampage, you can probably ignore it. This can backfire, though-giving the person reason to be even angrier and fight even harder to destroy your reputation–so keep an eye on the item.

Here is some helpful information from Fast Company about the social media policies of various companies.
Remind employees to be professional – this is all public.
It’s easy to type something without thinking of the implications. Time Warner Cable’s social media policy states: “On social networks where you identify yourself as an employee of TWC, be mindful that the content posted will be visible to coworkers, customers and partners. Make sure the information posted is the most professional reflection of your opinions and beliefs.”
I also liked this language from this article about libel online:
Twitter and Facebook have become a great way to sound off online. But remember that you have an audience.
Remember you always have the possibility of causing someone serious harm when you make those statements on the Web. Unless you know you’re fully protecting yourself, you should be careful what you say.
I appreciate that OrangeSoda not only allows but encourages employees to be active online. It helps the company to have people with their own networks who can send a tweet out. Sometimes we get asked to speak at conferences thanks to our social media activity. It will probably help your business too-just don’t forget there are also risks.
Bottom line: We need to have zero tolerance for cruelty online and a plan to address the downsides of social media. When you set up your policy, don’t discourage participation but do set clear boundaries for what’s acceptable and what’s not. Have a plan that you can implement quickly before an issue explodes and is harder to address.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Janet Meiners Thaeler is an Evangelist for OrangeSoda Inc. and the principal blogger for their corporate blog and Twitter account. She regularly advises clients on blogging and social media strategies. Her own blog is Newspapergrl.com (and Twitter account @newspapergrl). She is passionate about online marketing and is always looking for new insights, resources and trends to help her clients.

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