Social media can offer a valuable way for small business owners to connect meaningfully with customers and promote their businesses. But engaging in social media also comes with risks. An ill-advised tweet from your account or a Facebook post from an unhappy customer can spark a social media backlash that could place your business in the worst possible light.

While small business owners are usually at less risk than huge corporations because they don’t have as many Twitter or Facebook followers, small business social media gaffs do occur and can be difficult to navigate. Handled improperly, such incidents could cost you customers, revenue, and even your business. Thankfully, in addition to having business insurance, there are ways to survive a backlash.

Write Each Social Media Post as If 30,000 People Will See It

The best way to survive a social media backlash is to avoid one. Be mindful that anything you post can potentially be seen by many, many people.

“What you put out there really allows the regular general public into your kitchen,” says Dennis Pang, co-founder of digital marketing agency Popcorn. That can leave you vulnerable.

Just because you don’t think it will happen doesn’t mean it won’t. A social media fail can happen quickly and to anyone, whether it’s a typo gone horribly wrong or a poorly conceived promotional tie-in to current events. Some good general guidelines to follow are:

  • Avoid questionable jokes. If there’s even a chance you think it might offend someone, play it safe and don’t tweet it.
  • If you pre-schedule tweets or posts, pay attention to world events in the meantime, and adjust any pre-planned items that may appear insensitive given recent events.
  • When responding to world tragedies, never tie them to your company or product.
  • Proofread your posts. This bears repeating: Proofread your posts.

“In these days you just never know,” says Pang. “Just assume that, as a small business owner, your post could end up being shared by 30,000 people,” he says.

Always Monitor Your Social Media Accounts and Mentions

If you want to get ahead of a social media backlash, you have to know when it’s starting.

“Ensuring that you have the proper procedures and processes set up so that you can monitor and be on top of when people are talking about you — that comes first,” says Pang. That means setting up tools like Hootsuite that can track your mentions, and ensuring you or an employee checks your social media accounts and mentions regularly and often.

This is important because, once the social media snowball starts rolling, things can sour quickly. Consider the backlash United Airlines faced in April 2017 after violently removing a passenger from an overbooked plane. In less than 24 hours, the video of the incident made international news. “In the world that we live in, things go viral a lot quicker now,” says Pang. “When one person shares it, 10 people share it, and the next thing you know, 30,000 people share it and you’re on the front page of every newspaper.”

The sooner you become aware of a social media backlash, the sooner (and better) you can start strategizing how to respond.

Respond Quickly, Then Thoughtfully

When a social media backlash hits, it can be a challenge to figure out how and when to respond. Do you respond immediately to get in front of the blowback, but maybe risk a response that needed time to be more carefully thought out? Or, do you take your time to formulate a thorough reply, but risk being perceived as ignoring the issue?

Thousands of critical replies or retweets are often a sign you’re facing a backlash. Once that becomes clear, Pang subscribes to the approach of a quick public acknowledgment. The faster you can get out in front, the better. “So that even if we don’t have an answer at that particular moment, they are aware that this is something that has been brought to our attention and that we are taking the appropriate steps to look into it further,” he explains.

In your first response, mention that you have seen people’s concerns, express your regret, promise you’ll investigate the situation, and commit to providing a full response soon.

Once you’ve had time to either process or investigate what happened, it’s time for an official and more in-depth response, ideally on the same day. Small business owners should keep a few things in mind:

  • Offer explanations — not excuses
  • Take ownership
  • Be honest
  • Be human
  • Apologize in a way that’s sincere

If you’re not sincere, customers will sense it, and you’ll add fuel to the fire. For example, when the United Airlines CEO attempted to address the public’s reaction to the removal of the passenger from the plane, he used corporate buzzword speak: “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these passengers.” The result was even more public ridicule and criticism, because his comments were seen as insensitive, insincere, and dodging ownership.

Have Protocols in Place

When social media users become upset by something your company has done, it requires your full attention as a small business owner. If you’re a sole proprietor who runs your own social media, you may be quick to notice when things are going wrong and can begin planning your response.

Of course, running a small business takes a lot of time and focus, and there may be times when you haven’t checked Hootsuite in a while. In that case, if you notice hundreds of angry tweets coming your way, it’s imperative to take a step back and immediately devote your full attention to damage control.

If you have an employee or virtual assistant managing your social media, you need protocols in place so they know how to recognize a bad situation and when and how to involve you. “Knowing where their responsibilities end, and where it would require somebody more senior, or perhaps the owner, to really get involved [is important],” says Pang.

That means the employee or virtual assistant needs to have a standard instant response in place and ready to use (ideally in the form of the quick acknowledgment mentioned earlier), as well as the means to reach you — or a designated secondary contact — no matter where you are or what you’re doing, so you can bring your full attention to the crisis at hand.

In all cases, your small business is best served by responding both promptly and honestly.