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Back in the fifties, there was a popular book called What Do You Do, Dear? that was all about helping people to navigate tricky social situations. The more time I spend on the internet, I feel these should be required reading for anyone planning on participating in online social communities.  While they obviously weren’t about how to operate on the internet (which would have be extremely impressive for a book that came out in 1958), the wisdom contained within still applies and in some ways, is even more apt.

See, while memories are short, the internet is kind of forever. The internet remembers both that time you threw a rage fit on your Facebook page because a toddler was acting like a toddler and that time you refused to serve someone for a personal reason and they tweeted a picture of it just as well as all the positive things you’ve done.

Case Study 1: A reviewer writes a scathing review about a bad experience on your Facebook page. What do you do?

A. Respond to the review, calling them liars and assessing their behavior in your establishment 
B. Respond to the comment, graciously acknowledging their experience and asking them to get in touch 
C. Openly mock them on twitter
D. Delete the comment

If you chose answer B, you’re on the right track. Answer B addresses the fact that the customer has a concern and opens up the door for them to speak with you personally about the issue. It also makes a public spectacle of your customer service skills, without making a public spectacle of yourself, as in answers A and C.  Treating your customers with respect, no matter how wrong you think they might be, is the first rule of looking good on the internet. No matter who is actually in the wrong, the rest of the internet will know that you mind your manners around potentially-volatile situations.

Case Study 2: An irate customer is tagging you on Twitter and badmouthing your company, and even including pictures of their problem. What do you do?

A. Reply with “Sorry sucker, guess you bought broken merch”
B. Return fire with tweets discussing how the damage must have been caused by the customer. 
C. Reply to the tweeter with a customer service number and/or request for a DM at their convenience.
D. Hope it filters through your feed quickly and no one sees the tweets

If you chose option C, then once again you understand the first rule of communicating on the internet (no matter who you are) is “Don’t be a jerk.” While it seems like this should be the most obvious rule, it is the one most often forgotten by just about everyone. With the relative anonymity that the internet seems to provide, trolling is an easy option. But as a business owner it’s important that you stay above the fray: cool, professional, and competent so that your customers have faith in you.

By disrespecting your customers, what begins as a silly tweet or an innocuous Facebook post quickly turns into this-week’s viral meltdown which can quickly damage your reputation and hurt your sales. Because social media is about sharing, and taking a screen grab is as quick as pressing a button, your posts are shared quickly and in their original, unedited glory. All this sharing increases your search-engine results, for sure, but not in a good way. Those shares and that story will be available in Google’s cache for all eternity, and you never know when a website like Cracked or Jezebel or whoever is going to make a viral example of you and bring your faux-pas to the front again

After all. There is such a thing as bad publicity.