A teenager walks into a shop in South Carolina in search of a new wallet. As soon as she walks into the shop, she claims a saleswoman allegedly said “shoplifter” to a fellow employee. The teenager’s mother, a popular and well-regarded blogger, posts about the incident on her Facebook page and the post goes viral. The shop, Carolina Girls, then conducts an investigation saying the teenager must have been mistaken, claiming that none of their employees would malign or racially profile shoppers.

The blame-and-shame posts garnered the kind of criticism one would expect — angry comments that were promptly deleted by the Facebook page admin — and alleged activities that one wouldn’t anticipate during the crisis: fake glowing Yelp reviews. The shop temporarily deleted their Facebook profile and the owner went on the local news to plead her case, which doused a bucket of kerosene onto the five-alarm fire.

The damage had been done. From denials and customer blaming to deleting negative comments and lack of accountability, this incident is a prime example of what not to do in a social media crisis. If Carolina Girls had had a plan in place to manage the firestorm, they could have come out on the other side of the situation virtually unscathed, rather than later closing their Kiawah Island location (their Facebook page shows them operating in Charleston).

You’ve poured your heart, money, and hard work into your small business. Then, imagine if that were all wiped out in an instant over a situation you could’ve managed with a crisis communication plan.

Consider this staggering stat: Businesses risk a 22% hit to the bottom line — in terms of the number of customers lost — when a potential customer finds a single negative review in the first two pages of online search results. If three negative reviews are found, the percentage of lost customers increases to 59.2%.

The bottom line? Perception is everything, and your reputation is just as important as — perhaps even more than — the products and services you offer.

The good news is that you can put a simple three-step plan in place to help prevent an online meltdown.

Step 1: Monitor conversations and create a communication process plan

Knowledge is power, and understanding what customers are saying about your business is critical in proactively managing a crisis. Create Google alerts for your business, and monitor activity on your social media channels and Yelp reviews.

If you catch negative reviews or customer complaints early on, you’ll have a better chance of an amicable resolution and, if you do right by the customer, they almost always amend their reviews to reflect your goodwill.

Create a process for how content you publish is created, moderated, and managed:

  • Define up front, controversial topics you want to avoid discussing online.
  • Create a worksheet that identifies typical customer issues and your prepared responses. It’s important that you sound less like a robot and more like a human, so create a flow that is personalized, customer-friendly, and invites the conversation to continue privately or offline for resolution. Nip all issues in the bud quickly, professionally, and with compassion.
  • Establish a review process for how content is published on your social media. Don’t hand over the reins of your business’s social media to a junior employee or intern. Ensure all content gets a second pair of senior eyes before it’s published.
  • Perform a daily or twice weekly sweep of your blog, social media channels, and online reviews to monitor for any issues. Don’t think that complaints will go away. You never know when a popular influencer or media outlet will pick them up, and that one incident could snowball into a PR nightmare.

Step 2: Build a community

Have you ever visited a Facebook page or blog where detractors get smothered by brand fans? Empower your favorite customers to be your front-line evangelists when a crisis hits. Why? Because they’re incentivized (like employees) to defend the business, and third-party validation of your integrity reaches further than any press release.

Spend time cultivating relationships with your customers, online fans, local media, other business owners, and influencers, so you’ll have a megaphone and team to help you through a social media crisis. This could be the difference between your customers going to bat for a minor mistake versus your having to be a team of one shouldering an online meltdown. Value your customers because they’re an extension of your business and they are the ones who ultimately will ensure that it thrives.

Step 3: Avoid shady tactics

Don’t engage in questionable online behavior — such as buying fans or mass-deleting negative reviews. You’ll have a lesser chance of being called out for shady practices if you’re not engaging in them.

If you operate your business from a place of honesty, integrity, and humility, you’ll reduce the chances of facing a crisis. However, should one arise, those values will help ensure you have the strength to endure it. Remember, you’re in this for the long run, and short-term wins, cover-ups, and revenue hits could cost you long-term brand health and profitability.

No small business owner wants to deal with an online crisis. It not only takes you away from your business, but it also has the ability to cause irrevocable damage. Your reputation is probably the most important part of your business, so take the steps required to invest in and nurture it: Be thoughtful about what you put out into the world. Create a passionate community around your business. Finally, operate from a place of honesty and integrity — and that will win out over the long haul.

Tell Us: Has this type of online meltdown ever happened to you? If so, what did you do about it? How would you handle this differently in the future—if at all?