No matter what your line of business, there are always potential risks to your operation and ultimately your reputation. Good Public Relations (PR) will ensure that your reputation is not only promoted, but is also protected. However with the development of social media, these communication channels are becoming increasingly harder to manage, and for the majority of SME’s operating without the support of an experienced PR team and for whom reputation is so important, this can throw up a whole host of issues that have not previously been encountered.

Anticipating the issues

Communication strategy should form an important part of any business plan, in terms of business development or the oft-forgotten issues management. Whilst we all want to be positive and hope for the best, it pays to plan for the worst. Take an hour to brainstorm your stakeholders (customers, suppliers, partners, media, influencers) and the most common/likely causes for complaints, whether linked to your service, pricing or products. Anticipating the problems will allow you to prepare solutions and responses in advance.

Ensure a credible presence

Effective management of issues relies completely on rapid response. Traditionally PR professionals would ensure media statements were prepared and approved within an hour, now news breaks on Twitter and you need to be ready to respond immediately. Ensure you have an profile set up on the micro-blogging site and that you actively use it in your day-to-day communications, a crisis is not the time to start trying to establish a social media presence and responding to a crisis with no previous activity does not give the best impression of your company.

Are you listening?

There are a myriad of monitoring platforms available where you can quickly and easily review any mentions of your brand or products. Platforms such as Hootsuite or Tweetdeck allow you to monitor mentions of any keywords you choose across a variety of different social media networks, and these early detection systems can be a simple and effective way of locating a complaint and responding before it has time to develop into a bigger issue with a wider audience.

What to say and when to say it

It’s inevitable that somebody at some point is going to complain about your business, and they’re going to do it in public. It’s important to remain detached to evaluate what the issue is, and if it’s justified, before planning your response. Bearing in mind that the customer is always right, it’s also important to recognise that there are people out there who may well just be having a bad day and looking for a vent. Ensure to acknowledge the issue immediately and ask for an email to be sent to with additional information for you to look into. The response needs to be personal and concerned but try not to be defensive or overly apologetic – keep a professional tone at all times.

Take it offline

The most important thing to remember when responding to complaints and issues online is that whilst it needs to be publicly acknowledged (to show you are a company that listens and cares), the dialogue does not need to be in the public domain and should be taken offline as soon as possible. Whether this is through private messages on Facebook, DM’s on Twitter, or simply by telephone or email, the easiest thing to do is to ask the person in question for their preferred contact details so that you can get some more information in order to look into it properly – often this is enough reassurance that you are taking the matter seriously.

Never hide

Everybody wants their public image to be sparkling, but don’t be tempted to remove what could be construed as potentially negative content from your social media sites. Every complaint and issue is a great opportunity to demonstrate (publicly) your fantastic customer service and commitment, and pretending that the issues don’t exist is only likely to enrage the person who complained and provoke them to further comment on platforms that you amy not be able to control.

Engaging others

In addition, public profiles with mixed sentiment are much more authentic than those with a list of glowing reviews, and are therefore likely to be more trusted. If you are using your social media effectively, you should have an active and engaged community of potential brand ambassadors behind you, in these cases when a complaint is made, it is the online community who responds in defense of the brand. This is obviously the strongest form of endorsement and is quite easily achieved from ensuring you have an active and engaged community in the first place – they’re not called fans and followers for nothing!

Follow up and learn from it

With some simple preparation and a bit of human empathy, most issues should be easily manageable. What is important however is to ensure the cause of the issue is not forgotten and that action is taken within the business operations to prevent this from happening again. Even the most effective communicators cannot contain issues if there are genuinely problems within the business, yet if managed properly, any issue can become invaluable feedback towards business development and innovation

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