These days social media has become so integral to a brand's image that if it is used correctly, with well thought out viral marketing campaigns for example, it can be extremely useful in raising the brand profile and in increasing profits.

Unfortunately the opposite is also true. What Twitter can give, it can just as quickly take away.

There have been countless examples of businesses not understanding the power and speed that social media can turn something from minor irritation into full scale PR disaster.

In April this year Dominos experienced exactly this scenario when a video of two of their employees doing strange things with cheese went up on YouTube and then went round the world wide web crazy fast before being picked up by the mainstream media.

What started as a nothing video by two employees ended up causing a massive drop in public approval for the company within the space of a week.

Similarly in the UK recently WH Smiths, the largest news and magazine retailer in the country, left their offices for the weekend with no-one in front of their Twitter account.

On Saturday morning a member of the public tweeted a picture that hinted that one of their shops had hidden copies of a couple of gay magazines. Twitter went crazy with anger and outrage labeling the company as homophobic.

On Monday morning they issued their own Tweets to try to fix the damage but by then it was too late. They had no policy in place for this kind of social media crisis and no one managing their own Tweet feed full time ready to respond.

So how do you avoid these kind of errors? You follow a Social Media plan that sticks to the following five crucial rules.

The Rules

1. Never Underestimate How Serious it Might Be

This is the first thing that businesses fall down on.

Incredibly a lot of businesses still do not understand the speed of social media and the damage it can cause. Twitter, Facebook and other social media tools are how your customers are interacting. It is business suicide not to understand these tools too.

It is for this reason that businesses need to have someone in the company always responsible for the social media feeds and interaction.

2. Never, Ever Ignore Social Media Buzz (Positive or Negative) About Your Company

If a business comes across a video, song, blog article or post about their brand or their products and it is negative, then they should be prepared to respond and they should follow the traffic.

If the negativity is funny, then that response should be too. Take it on the chin, make a joke of it and show you can take a joke. It will soon go away. Ignore it and it will grow and grow.

If the comments are negative and nasty, or untrue, then respond politely but firmly and put them straight.

The only thing you should not do is remain silent on the issue.

3. Keep Abreast of All Social Media

New forms of social media seem to arrive every month. Make sure your business is up to date with all of them.

This helps you build your brand and plan your marketing strategies in all kinds of ways but it also keeps you up to date and ready to pounce if something about your business starts to do the rounds.

4. One Way Is the Wrong Way

Do not look at social media as something that only works one way.

It is not there for business purely to market products and equally it is not just for listening to what people say about their business.

Social media is about interaction and dialogue and to use it is to engage with your customers in a very real way.

5. Listen and Respond

Part of that interaction involves listening to what your customers are saying.

Listen to complaints and negative comments and respond, showing that the company has taken on board what people are saying.

Should you find yourself in the middle of a social media crisis, do not panic, just take stock of what is happening. Write an immediate and clear response that either refutes the allegations if they are untrue, or acknowledges and addresses them if they are real.

The tone of your response should match the mood of the trending social media. If people are joking, respond with good grace and humor. If they are angry, address the cause of their anger and set the tone accordingly.

However you handle it, tweeting that the company has changed the way it operates will be appreciated by the Twittersphere and stop you ending up with cheese up your nose!

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