In today's fast-paced, real-time, often frenetic age of social media where anyone with access to an internet connection can blog, tweet or broadcast live, facts can be easily muddled.

"Fake news" and "alternative facts" became buzzwords during the last U.S. presidential election. But as technology evolves and digital devices become more ubiquitous, 'fake news' and 'alternative facts' are realities that are proving hard to contain.

Today, anyone with a smartphone or digital device can become a reporter, regardless of their training, education, ethics or agenda. And that's a real problem that all business owners need to take seriously.

No doubt, nefarious journalist-types have always tried to blur the lines between fact and fiction, publishing stories that are egregiously out-of-context or clearly one-sided. It's nothing new.

Today, though, the ease with which facts can be manipulated or partially reported by anyone with a platform and a smartphone is something every business needs to be vigilant of.

Swept Up In A Media Maelstrom

You may think you're just a small business owner with no media presence or reason to be concerned with a public relations nightmare. But the truth is, any business of any size anywhere can get swept up in a social media maelstrom that's not (at least not entirely) of their own making.

Whether it's an unpopular product or a customer service meltdown, there is no hiding in the age of social media.

Take, for instance, the United Airlines debacle that unraveled earlier this month. By now, most of the country - if not the world - is familiar with the bloodied image of United customer and Kentucky physician David Dao as he was dragged down an aisle by airport security who forcibly removed the 69-year-old from the plane after he refused to give up his seat.

Naturally, this caused outrage among the other passengers and anyone watching video footage of the unfolding events. But that was only part of the story.

Taking Stock of All of the Facts

The rest of the facts surrounding the incident did not come to light until days after. By then, the damage had already been done.

Here are some relevant facts leading up to Dao's arrest that were muffled by the social media hysteria that ensued:

  • According to this passenger-taken video, David Dao was asked politely to leave his seat. He refused, saying "Well, you can drag me out, but I'm not going." And then, "I'd rather go to jail."
  • Also, it wasn't Dao's first run-in with the law, reports the New York Post.
  • In a 130-page report, the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure described how, in 2002, the medical executive committee at Hardin Memorial Hospital (a hospital Dao had worked at) "put [Dao] on a corrective action plan due to his disruptive behavior" and referred him "for evaluation and anger management"
  • Airlines are authorized to bump passengers for a variety of reasons. If you refuse to get off a flight at the airline's prompting, you are unlawfully trespassing. You're actually breaking the law.
  • The flight was operated by Republic Airlines (doing business as United Express). The passenger was not injured by airline employees, but law enforcement when the passenger refused to follow instructions.

Get The Facts First

I've flown 1 million actual miles on United Airlines.

I recall the days of former United Airlines chairman and CEO, Jeff Smisek. Employee morale was low, customers were not treated especially well,and the company was mired in scandal. On the surface it may seem like nothing much has changed.

But as a frequent flyer, I can say there has been a noticeable positive difference in the way things are handled under the watch of new CEO Oscar Muñoz. Employee morale and customer serices is certainly improving. Fixing culture problems doesn't happen overnight. I've heard employees offer unsolicited vocal support of Muñoz.

To be sure, United's handling of the David Dao situation leaves much to be desired. Before jumping to conclusions and engaging in (social media) mob mentality, we should gather all the facts first.

What Business Can Learn

It's important for you as a business owner to understand the values you hold as an organization and to communicate those values clearly. Endeavor not only to demonstrate those values within your company but to align yourselves with partners that share those same values.

Because in this new age of social media, if you don't articulate your values clearly or align with others who do the same, you might find someone else distorting those values in ways that are beyond your control.

"Don't wait for a crisis," says PR guru Gini Dietrich on the Grow My Revenue podcast.

Communications expert Dierdre Blake says it plainly in this MuckRack post:

"The collective concept of reality is getting warped and it's increasingly hard to converse publicly with civility or depth," Blake writes. "Our technology is easily manipulated and misused to amplify fallacious arguments, which is one reason why jerks and no-nothings get to monopolize everyone's attention."