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Back in the days before the Internet got started, it used to be much simpler to manage the reputation of a business. Certainly, word of mouth was still a powerful force for good and evil, but it moved relatively slowly – not at the dizzying pace that it does online today. Normally, you had the opportunity to talk to customers and rectify problems before they went public. Not only that, but any mistakes that you made weren’t preserved for posterity on websites and search engines.

Today, if you are going to maintain the reputation of your company online, then you need to defend against all those little errors that can turn into catastrophic results. You have to be eternally vigilant – since the same Internet that lets you get your message out so easily is also a powerful medium for broadcasting your mistakes. And, there are lots of different mistakes that you can make.

Lacking visibility

Possibly the biggest mistake of all is not to monitor your reputation. As the saying goes, you don’t know what you don’t know. Unless you can see what your customers are saying about you online, you can’t take corrective action – nor can you figure out the best approach to keeping them onside. Sticking your head in the sand is one of the five cardinal sins of reputation management.

However, keeping up with everything that is being said about your company can be incredibly challenging. You may be able to see comments coming in on your own forums and check a few other sites manually – but to do a good job, you need to have the right tools. There are software platforms available that allow you to monitor sentiment automatically across a wide range of social media and review sites so you are alerted you when there is a problem. You need to regard this as an essential investment if you’re serious about protecting your reputation.

Abandoning your customers

One of the greatest strengths of social media from a marketing perspective is that it allows you to create a personal relationship with a customer community. This takes time and effort, as well as the ability to control your message carefully – but there is no better way to drive repeat business and create evangelists for your company.

However, if you are going to make that investment, then you need to make a long-term commitment as well. What happens far too often is that a company builds a customer community, and then fails to engage once it is up and running. Perhaps this is due to a personnel change in the marketing department, or it may even be a budgetary issue. It doesn’t matter. Whatever the reason, you can’t walk away from your customer network once you have built it – or are in the process of building it. Doing this leaves your customers feeling frustrated and angry, and they can quickly turn from your best friends into the source of your problems.

Not controlling the message

Part of the power of social media is how quickly you can get the message out. However, that is also its biggest danger. One ill-considered tweet or blog posting can do irreparable harm to your business. You need to review everything that goes out before you post, and make sure that it is relevant, positive and unlikely to cause offense. Be particularly careful not to stray into politics or religion, and make sure you don’t give any responses that could be misconstrued as condescending or rude.

Whatever you do, don’t try to leverage disasters or tragedies to drive sales. One of the most egregious examples of this was after Hurricane Sandy, when several companies posted messages of sympathy and support, but made the fatal mistake of attaching advertising to the messages. The resulting outcry could be heard far beyond the Jersey Shore.

Furthermore, make sure that you physically control the message. There is no point in putting comprehensive process controls in place, and then giving your marketing intern unrestricted access to your social media accounts. The least damaging thing that can happen is they will decide to talk about how cute their dog is, but it can get much worse than that. For example, take a look at this gaffe from Microsoft – an employee used the company’s twitter account – instead of his own– to launch an attack on Anne Coulter, a prominent conservative social and political commentator. Microsoft may be able to shrug this off, but the chances are that you won’t get away with it.

Failing to take action

This is the counterpart of that other deadly sin – lack of visibility. You can control your own communications, but it is much more difficult to do this with other parties. In other words, you can always do things to promote positive sentiments, but there will inevitably be negative voices. In some cases these can actually be malicious – for example, a disgruntled ex-employee exacting their revenge, or a competitor mounting a smear campaign. You may feel that there is nothing you can do about this, or even make the mistake of approaching the antagonist directly – in most cases they will just redouble their efforts.

However, there definitely are things you can do. One of the most effective ways of combating negative opinions – particularly when they are unjustified – is to deny them a voice. A good Online Reputation Management (ORM) company can drive negative links down the search engine rankings by aggressively promoting positive content – using techniques such as article marketing. This is perfectly ethical – you are just making sure that the truth speaks louder, which is what good marketing is about anyway. In fact, even if you don’t have any immediate problems, it still is a good idea to create a relationship with an ORM agency. The agency will help you to take a proactive stance, rather than trying to shut the barn door after the horse has bolted.