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Every organization in the world, whether it is using social media or not, should have an up-to-date crisis plan for when the inevitable occurs.

In my article “Dealing with negative online comments” June 2013, I stated “any company that has been in business longer than a day has an unhappy customer.” I covered steps to prevent negativity from spiraling out of control: provide good online support, listen to your customers, acknowledge complaints, fix problems quickly, take it offline, and be honest. Sometimes even that won’t save you. Sometimes the disaster is as big as an oil spill. Sometimes it’s your fault.

The truth of the matter is a crisis will happen. How damaging it is to your reputation or bottom line depends on how prepared you are for it. Some feel superstitious about creating a plan as if the act itself will cause bad things to happen. I encourage you to look at the evacuation maps in tall buildings, fire extinguishers, and defibrillators for emergency use. The people saved by these types of safety measures will thank you for planning ahead.

First, have a plan in place. When you have a team handling service issues and customer facing communications, a formal procedural manual is necessary. Train your staff to deal with all typical issues as well as worst-case scenarios. Run drills with your team so that the anxiety reaction to an emergency is kept to a minimum. A formal procedure for logging service problems will show patterns that may allow you to spot trouble early on.

Take swift action. In this age of fast moving information, time is not on your side. As soon as you learn of a problem, waste no time ascertaining the issue at hand. If your organization made a mistake, apologize publicly and own up to it. Internet users are requiring transparency in corporate communications and as they say in journalism, “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover up.” Choosing honesty allows the general public to witness how you handle the situation and helps greatly to form public opinion.

Track down the start or cause of the problem. Keep the public up-to-date on the progress towards a solution as well as when a resolution has been reached. Make sure that you are using your website, blog, videos, social media channels, press releases as well as traditional forms of media to get the word out.

Respond to your customers online. Be very clear about your values, what is important to your organization, and how you strive to provide great products and services to your customers. The comments will be coming fast and furious but it’s important not to ignore the online conversations about your brand at a time of emergency. If you do, you will have a whole new problem on your hands.

 Encourage your Super Fans. Identify those that strongly support your brand. These people are your greatest cheerleaders and their opinion about what you do is worth more than any advertising. Their amplification of positive opinions is priceless and can help to frame the conversation during stressful times. Whether they are online, in your store, or at any other location, reach out to them and treat them with the greatest respect.

 When the dust settles, make changes where necessary. By having your process in place you will be able to make changes to the way you deliver your product, improve the customer experience, and have chances for open dialogue with the public. You need to make sure you did everything you could at the end of the day.

 Most importantly, it’s how you react to a situation that the public remembers. By taking a disaster and turning it around with great customer service, you can wipe away a bad experience and earn new customers with the way you respond online and off.

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Kerry Rego 707-520-4572, kerry@kerryregoconsulting.com, kerryregoconsulting.com) is a social media trainer, technology consultant and keynote speaker in Santa Rosa. She is the author of What You Don’t Know About Social Media Can Hurt You: Take Control of Your Online Reputation.