Your social media strategy should center on using digital platforms to engage with customers and relevant stakeholders. Whether or not you control the message, these people are increasingly learning about you via Twitter, Facebook and other channels. Therefore, when a crisis arises, your customers will likely consume and share information about you via these same outlets. Being unprepared to spread your crisis response messages on social media is akin to surrendering your army before the first shot is ever fired.

Social media strategy extends beyond outreach and into crisis control, where messages work to protect your reputation.

First, you have to build and use your social media platform and hire employees dedicated to digital communications. You can't wait for a crisis to begin before engaging customers. The role of your social media strategy, especially in a crisis, must be to defend your company's reputation. However, you should already be using these channels to build and maintain your public image.

How should you create a social media plan in case of a crisis? Here are some recommendations:

  1. Engage often with your customers and relevant stakeholders before a crisis arises. You'll be able to leverage these strong online relationships during a crisis. Have structures and dedicated people to support your social media efforts, and seek to build trust with your stakeholders as the necessary foundation for any communication.
  2. Use social media as a messaging tool and as a listening tool. Have your digital communications people or your software tools searching for keywords such as your company's name or most popular offerings. If the digital world is talking about you, either for good or for ill, monitor these important conversations as a precursor to any potential response.
  3. Set up a dedicated digital response person or team to develop reputation-protecting messages. Make sure you respond to complaints on the same platform where they were first made. For example, if a customer complains about a bad experience with your company via Twitter, respond first on Twitter,then seek to take the conversation offline and away from other customers who may enjoy seeing a public online conflict. A good strategy here is to ask the customer to email or call your customer service team, who will be waiting to hear from them and resolve their issue.
  4. Define clear rules about who can respond, when a response is needed and how it should be followed. You need to know what messages are potentially damaging to your middle market company's reputation. Figure out which merit a response and which are better ignored. Don't feed the trolls by engaging with people, usually noncustomers, who love to stir up trouble by spreading rumors or fabricating information. It would be wise to publicly correct the falsehood, but try not to engage too much with people who simply want to drum up conflict. When you correct someone and then refuse to be drawn into a battle, the trolls move on to other potential targets.
  5. Use social media to acknowledge that a crisis exists. Do this even if you don't have an immediate and clear action plan. Say something like, "We are aware of the situation and are currently working to remedy it. We apologize for any inconvenience." If you fail to make this sort of acknowledgment, people online might assume you are in denial, which is deadly for your reputation. Apologizing for inconveniences will not damage your reputation;after all, people are fairly forgiving in the face of sincerity. But denial is one of the worst approaches you could take.
  6. Direct people to a central area where they can find periodic updates. Use social media to send people to your website or any other central platform where you will communicate your crisis response efforts. Update the website with relevant information, press releases, video responses from your executives or any other appropriate information as the crisis evolves. The public and media alike will appreciate your transparency and will use your updates as a primary source. This will also help prevent them from citing ill-founded rumors or conjecture from elsewhere.
  7. Have practice runs and drills to test your social media strategy in a variety of potential crisis situations. Your people must know automatically what they need to do and say in different scenarios. Speed is important — you'll want to be upfront and avoid reacting to others' information. If something isn't working during your drills, be sure to repair it before an actual crisis occurs. Do a lessons-learned assessment meeting after each test run and integrate the findings into your next response effort.

By following these seven recommendations, you'll be able to leverage your social media to best protect your reputation in any crisis. The alternative is to allow others to manage your reputation, which is always a bad idea.

Have external sources ever spread rumors or false information about your company? How did you react to the situation and ultimately remedy it? What long-term implications did the crisis have? Tell us by commenting below.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is an NCMM contributor and a freelance reporter who contributes regularly to The Boston Globe and Harvard Gazette. He also trains Fortune 500 executives in business-communication skills as an instructor for EF Education.