Nicole Beachum is managing partner of Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO)-member company Uptick Marketing, which provides strategic, creative and tailored digital marketing to help clients better reach and convert target markets. In light of recent social media firestorms, we asked Nicole how she advises clients to avoid negative social media scenarios. Here's what she shared:

In the Star Wars movies, Luke Skywalker has a choice between the light side and the dark side of The Force―but when it comes to the force of social media, companies don't always have an option.

On April 5, 2017, a doctor was forcibly dragged off United Airlines Flight #3411 when he refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight. Passengers recorded the incident, sharing it on social media. The video went viral on Twitter with over 87,000 shares and more than 6.8 million views in less than 24 hours.

The result? United Airlines stock prices dropped, a confidential settlement was awarded to the doctor, and policy changes were made to help prevent a repeat of the situation in the future. It's telling that United Airlines Flight #3411 now has its own Wikipedia page.

Not only did United Airlines physically injure a person by dragging him off a plane, but their apology made the situation worse: It was delayed, lacked sincerity and was accompanied by a leaked internal email wrongfully accusing the passenger of belligerence. Yikes.

Regardless of industry, your company is not immune to the dark side of social media. From Starbucks arresting two black men to local companies responding poorly to customer complaints online, it's important to acknowledge that--without advance preparation--the business and brand you've painstakingly built over many years could crash and burn within hours. It's a frightening thought.

But don't let fear rule. Here are five proactive steps your business can take to evade the dark side of social media.

1. Improve customer service

Notice how most severe customer complaints come not only after a service failure but also after a failed service recovery. In such cases, a customer feels wronged, tries to address grievances with the company and is ultimately mistreated again. The result? They (or someone who witnessed the incident) take the matter to social media in search of justice.

Therefore, a best practice in avoiding the perils of social media involves ensuring your customer service function is designed to put customers first. A $50 loss from refunding a disgruntled customer is way cheaper than the public relations disaster you could otherwise face.

2. Empower frontline employees to make it right

To improve customer service, you must provide frontline employees with the jurisdiction necessary to address service failures. Does your waitstaff have the authority to comp a meal in order to ensure customer satisfaction? Does your customer support team have the ability to offer product refunds?

Your frontline team should know precisely how much authority they have to make situations right for customers. Furthermore, there should be clear policies outlined to provide the support necessary in situations they feel are spiraling out of control. The best defense is a strong offense: Actively address customer complaints as quickly as possible.

3. When you fail, respond quickly and with sincerity

What happens when your company fails? The ideal course of action is to own the mistake and apologize with sincerity―and do so swiftly. Additionally, make sure the apology and compensation match the severity of the failure. A quick, sincere and just response will go a long way toward mitigating losses and helping to preserve your company's reputation.

4. Monitor brand mentions on social media platforms

In order to know what's being shared about your brand online--both positive and negative--you have to invest in social media monitoring software. What are customers saying about your business? If a quick and sincere response is the key to mitigating losses, then knowing when your company is the topic of negative social media chatter is imperative to responding accordingly.

5. Have a detailed response plan ready

Finally, establish a detailed plan of action before you find yourself on the social media hot seat. If and when there's an incident involving your company, who is authorized to respond? What will they say? Brainstorm with your leadership and cover as many possible scenarios that could go wrong and plan a rational response to each one. Write down best practices and specific, situational responses in a document that's easily accessible to key players on your team. Then, if and when a situation occurs that requires a fast, thoughtful response--you're ready!

In our modern marketplace, what was once a relatively private matter between a company and an affected customer can now be shared with millions of people in a matter of seconds. Improperly managing social media complaints can lead to everything from a drop in stock prices to reduced purchase intention and the destruction of your company's image and reputation.

Elude the dark side of social media and keep your business basking in a positive light by proactively preparing today for what could happen tomorrow.

Published on: Jan 2, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.