William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy) and Robert Mit...Social Media is quickly becoming one of the most valuable tools in a marketer’s bag of tricks. By creating accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Google +, you can engage the community, and build a following in a way traditional advertising could never do. Because of the fluid and unpredictable nature of social networking, however, many small business owners have shied away from jumping into the 21st century. While it’s true that social marketing comes with a certain amount of risk, the benefits of a clear, thoughtful campaign far outweigh the disadvantages. To mitigate those disadvantages, here are five ways to protect your brand’s online reputation.

Start With a Strategy 

Your social media marketing may look casual from the outside, but you need to make sure it is anything but. You wouldn’t start a traditional advertising campaign without clear goals, tracking methods, and proven strategies, so don’t start a social media campaign without those essentials. Before you put your brand on a social media outlet, sit down with your top employees to create a plan. Map out your online image. What do you want to convey? Which logos will you use across your various channels? What is your desired voice? If you can nail down these elements beforehand, you’ll be well ahead of the game.

Educate Your Employees

One of the biggest threats to a brand’s social media reputation comes not from random strangers on the Internet but from within the company itself. The list of companies that have faced mainstream embarrassment due to a rogue employee is a mile long. Often, the employees didn’t even mean to cause harm. This is why it’s so important that you set down rules and regulations for on-the-clock social media usage. Make your employees understand that their Facebook posts, Tweets, and online comments represent the company even when they aren’t made under the brand’s umbrella.

Monitor the Web 

You may be comfortable with the level of control you have over your own social media accounts, but don’t forget there is a world of untamed wilderness out there. Even if you don’t currently have an official social media presence, people could be mentioning your company in unfavorable contexts. You can’t stop bad press, but you owe it to the health of your brand to monitor these mentions.Use Google’s blog search, Twitter’s search function, and Facebook’s graph search to find out what people are saying about your company.

Responding to Negative Comments 

As tempting as it may be to delete negative comments from your social media page, you are doing yourself a disservice if you make it a habit. Users balk when they notice a company whitewashing their Facebook account. Because the practice is so common, tech-savvy users often screenshot negative comments in preparation for the inevitable disappearance. These screenshots wind upgoing viral, creating a problem well out of hand.

Spam should be deleted, but serious customer complaints deserve to be addressed. Companies that take an overly-defensive tone risk taking an adversarial position against their loyal followers. Instead of deleting or reacting out of fear, decide methodically how you will respond to the criticism. If it’s fair, you may need to take steps to correct the problem. If you can’t abide the customer’s point-of-view, explain in clear terms why they are in the wrong. If you present an argument that rings true, your other customers will be able to see that. In this way, you can turn online complaints into exceptional opportunities. More often than not, however, the best response to online criticism is humility and apology.

Protect Your Trademarks 

It’s important to protect free speech on the Internet. It is, after all, the thing that most Western countries hold most dear. Free speech has its limitations, however, and these limitations include how you use another company’s branding. If you want to protect your good name, make sure unauthorized accounts aren’t sullying your brand’s reputation. Look for accounts infringing on your trademarks and logos, and insist on their removal whenever possible.