Picture this: The year is 1631, and you are the proud proprietor of Ye Olde Print Shoppe in London, England. Council has just passed yet another ordinance prohibiting the stalls of fruiterers, fish sellers, tripe women, bakers, butchers, etc., from sullying your fair city’s streets, and you couldn’t be happier. A fish monger has illegally set up right outside your establishment. The smell of slightly over-ripe fish is really stinking up the joint, and you have an important order to fill. Yet another run of the revolutionary King James Bible.

You give your apprentice his assignment – responsibility for the popular Ten Commandments. You think to yourself, “Surely he can handle a bit of typesetting!”

Oh, he handled it alright. And he might have handled YOU right out of business, not to mention right out of town (this is the 17th century, don’t forget).

His error read as follows:

Seventh Commandment – Thou shalt commit adultery.

Thankfully, the transmission of news and information in the 17th century was nowhere near as transparent nor instantaneous as it is today. A trip between the nation’s two largest cities, Norwich and London, took fifty hours. For news to travel between the English Parliament in Westminster and the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh took nine days, weather permitting. Lucky for you.

We are well aware that if an error like that had been made today, say as an incorrect company blog post, or a rogue tweet by an overzealous – or overly pickled – employee, it would have been retweeted or ‘linked back to’ a hundred times over before said Master Printer had even noticed it. Social media giveth, and social media taketh away. Upsets – holy or otherwise – can happen, just don’t allow that possibility to scare you away.

Being nervous in the beginning is normal. But have some faith in what you’ve built – and those you’ve trained – as you’ve been setting up your internal social media plan. With a pre-planned Reputation Management plan in place and an in-depth social media policy drafted and disseminated to your staff, a PR bump in the road will be easily recovered from.

A study from Pew Research Center shows that Reputation Management is something that people are becoming highly aware of – 57 percent of adult Internet users have used a search engine to perform a vanity search, and 46 percent of Internet users search online to monitor the digital footprints of others. Celebrities and some high profile corporations are even taking out Twitter insurance, mainly to protect against lawsuits and legal battles around issues such as intellectual property, defamation and privacy breaches.

You might consider Twitter insurance be a bit over the top for the moment, but you still need to protect your company name and the integrity of your brand. Here are some easy and effective things you can do without breaking the bank:

  • Trust: Your employees – they are skilled, intelligent, professional and presumably have a healthy grip on common sense.
  • Develop: A detailed action plan – sometimes these PR nightmares happen at the most inopportune times – say, after midnight after the company party…? Have a detailed, easily accessed action plan in place as well as someone tasked with being the emergency response point person. If at all possible, don’t wait until morning to bring in your clean-up crew.
  • Monitor: The web – use major search engines to set up alerts and always follow up when links are delivered. Assign someone the daily task of watching social media sites, review sites, blogs and online forums – use social media monitoring platforms if your budget allows. Keep track of where your name is mentioned daily.
  • Respond: To errors in judgement immediately – explain the error or offense, and if there’s any way to fix it, do so. Just don’t sweep it under the carpet and hope it will go away. Worse yet, don’t dance around it. Social media users value the openness, contact and relationships they’ve built with organizations, and tend to not respond well to PR spin. Stepping up and saying “Hey, we goofed” will also remind people what’s behind the brand – human beings. Who sometimes make mistakes.

People can’t be at the helm 24/7. But if you adopt and adhere to a company-wide Reputation Management playbook, you’ll be able to respond to – and respect – your social media community members. And people are what this amazing new world of connectedness and conversation is all about.

What do you think? Have you thought about your organization’s Reputation Management plan? Who would you turn to or what would you do if an offensive tweet or Facebook post was causing a media firestorm? And where does your company draw the line at what is or isn’t offensive? Please leave your comments below.

Note: The Time Magazine link is an excerpt. Read the full article in the May 9th, 2011 edition.