We all occasionally say things we shouldn’t. We’ve all had a moment that we look back on an cringe a bit, and twenty years ago, before we were encouraged to share our every thought with the internet at large, our embarrassment was confined to those present. Now, what we say and how we say it can be broadcast to everyone we know and many we don’t. That poorly worded political argument, personal dustup or ill advised rant can live on in infamy, the things we say can destroy our personal relationships and our businesses. Here’s how it happens, how you can prevent it from happening to you, and what to do if you’ve already put your foot in your mouth online.

How it Happens

Angela Lannon Wilcox owns an ice cream shop in Avondale, Florida. It’s not the type of business you’d expect to spawn a hotbed of controversy, but Angela made a critical error. On her personal (but public and easily linked to her business) Facebook account, she began commenting on a post. She said some things that were controversial, and she represented herself (and by extension, her business) in a way that was less than flattering. The backlash was swift. Angela’s political commentary went viral, the Imgur post of her comments was viewed 23,000 times in 24 hours. Local and regional newspapers picked the story up, memes were spawned, her Google+ and Yelp pages were flooded with one star reviews, she was called a racist, boycotts were planned, and within 24 hours, the web presence she’d no doubt cultivated over time was completely decimated.

Regardless of how you feel about the level of influence anonymous internet users can wield over your business and reputation, the fact is that they can and they do have the power to turn your business from “The Florida Creamery” to “that ice cream shop with the racist owner” in a matter of hours. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, it doesn’t matter if you were misunderstood (so far as we know, Angela Lannon Wilcox may be a lovely woman who simply said some things she probably shouldn’t have in a public forum), once you post it, you have no control over it anymore. You can delete it, but there’s always a chance that it’s been documented and shared. You can’t turn back time and not say what you said, and once you try to explain yourself you’ll likely find that no one is listening.

How You Can Prevent It

There’s an old saying that goes “You can say it and forget it, but if you write it, you’ll regret it”. In the age of social media, nothing could be more true. You can all but guarantee that what happened to The Florida Creamery won’t happen to your business if you follow one simple rule:

Don’t post things you wouldn’t discuss with clients on the internet. This includes all of your social media platforms, personal and business, any blogs, the comments sections of websites, anywhere. If you put it online, it can be found and it can embarrass you. We promise. We’ve had multiple clients approach us after drawing controversy online to lament, “But that’s my private Facebook page! My business isn’t on it!” It DOES. NOT. MATTER. You don’t know that someone on your personal Facebook page wouldn’t share what you’ve written, you might not realize how much another user can find out about you (and your business) using only your publicly available profile information (spoiler alert: it’s everything about your business).

You have the right to free speech, you do not have the right to a successful business free from criticism. Legally, you can say whatever you want. Legally, you can also get lots of face tattoos. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Keep your interactions limited to things you’d discuss directly with your clients and the chance that you’ll fall victim to an internet lynch mob is basically nonexistent.

If you’re unsure about  how to manage your social media platforms and want to avoid the pitfalls of doing so yourself, give us a call. We offer a full spectrum of social media strategy, management, and marketing services. We can protect you from business-ruining controversy, and we can help you harness social media to grow your business.

What To Do if It’s Already Happened

Here’s the bad news. There’s not much that can be done. Like we said, once you post it, it takes on a life of it’s own and you can’t really control it anymore. We can mitigate the damage, but we can’t unring that bell. We can work with you to develop a damage control strategy that will limit any lasting effects, contact review services and have erroneous reviews (those posted by people who have never patronized your business and are reviewing you based upon the controversy) removed, push new, dynamic content to keep negative items off of the front page of Google, and help you rebuild your brand.

If you’ve recently experienced the wrath of the internet, here’s what you can do immediately to mitigate the damage.

Apologize. Keep it brief and keep it sincere. Avoid passive language (“I’m sorry if you were offended”) and again, be brief. A short, unequivocal apology for what you said is all that’s indicated.

Stop Talking. Do not defend, attempt to explain, do not argue, just turn off your computer and walk away. There is almost no chance that you’ll do anything other than incite more controversy and doing so will not help the situation. We get that it can be tempting to set the record straight, but trust us, it’s not going to have the desired effect. Luckily, the internet has an extremely short attention span and the less you engage, the sooner the spotlight will be diverted elsewhere.

Contact us. We can help you navigate this, and we can help you rebuild your brand quickly. We’re experienced in crisis management and we’re here to help you!