Lately, real-time marketing has become the holy grail for marketers. If you can fire off a witty tweet – like Arby's famously did at the Grammy Awards, noting the resemblance of the rapper Pharrell's hat to their logo — you can win massive brand recognition and acclaim. (They racked up 75,000 retweets and 40,000 favorites virtually overnight.) But the dangers are real, warns Lisa Chau, founder of social media consultancy Alpha Vert. "Real-time marketing is risky," she says. "A well-executed, real-time marketing decision has the potential for high reward, however. The return on a calculated risk can be bigger than anything planned ahead of time."

But if your messaging is off, you can risk alienating your audience. In just one recent example, at the Oscars, the Oxygen network show The Face purchased promoted tweets for the hashtag #KimNovak. But during the ceremony, Twitter users accused the legendary actress of relying extensively on plastic surgery – an unfortunate message for a television program about modeling. Chau has three tips for middle market leaders to properly evaluate the risks.

Focus on relevance. Can your company really contribute to the conversation? That's the first question to ask yourself, says Chau. "It's smart to participate in trending social media topics if they are relevant to your brand," she says, "because you will be reaching an audience that has self-identified its interest in a topical conversation. But stay away from discussions where you cannot add value." One example of the latter is Kenneth Cole's ill-considered 2011 tweet jumping on the hashtag #Cairo. The context was the political uprising in Egypt — not necessarily a place where you'd expect a fashion brand to weigh in. Indeed, users quickly became outraged the company was using the hashtag to promote its spring collection. Says Chau, "Don't participate in every conversation just because you can."

Have a crisis plan in place. Part of the challenge of real-time marketing, says Chau, is that "there's less time to think through decisions before making them." That's why it's critical to have a crisis management plan in place. She suggests using these guidelines from author and social media consultant Ekaterina Walter, and adds, "you will want to have an existing team of loyal brand ambassadors who…will rally for you afterwards." Work on identifying those "superfans" now. Finally, you should "set up guidelines for your staff to follow so they know what is expected and appropriate. Prevent problems rather than cleaning them up" by laying out clear policies on social media usage, and what can be talked about and what can't.

Entrust your brand voice to the right people. "I am still shocked to see company after company hiring graduates fresh out of college [or interns, even!] to maintain corporate accounts," says Chau. "Yes, the millennials know how to use the tools in the technical sense, but they don't have the experience of client-facing work. This is a huge risk." For such a critical function, don't skimp — good judgment is worth paying for when it comes to hiring social media professionals. "A good salesman knows how to handle clients and conduct business professionally. So, too, a good communicator. Invest in a seasoned marketing executive and you'll have less to worry about in terms of trusting their intuition in making real-time decisions."

Dorie Clark is an NCMM contributor and a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press) and follow her on Twitter.