Actor and director Kevin Smith was once thrown off a Southwest Airlines flight for being overweight.

If this happened in the 1990s, he would've yelled at the gate agent, maybe written an angry letter, or called customer service to complain about it--and that would've been that.

Instead, because it happened in today's ultra-connected social media world, he fired off a series of angry, frustrated, and hilarious tweets to his 1.6 million followers and instantaneously set off a public relations nightmare for the airline.

Southwest immediately had to coordinate its marketing and customer service responses while dealing with media jackals who were looking to further publicize the incident.

These types of real-time crisis management scenarios aren't uncommon today. In fact, they're hitting modern companies every minute of every day.

All companies--and all their employees--are active on social media in some regard. As a result, staff members who once had absolutely no involvement with marketing are now standing front and center.

If their Twitter bio says they work for you, they're automatically part of your marketing team whether you like it or not. It's vital that you make them aware of this and get everyone on the same page when it comes to representing your company.

Develop Your Voice

The most important thing you can do is train, empower, and encourage your employees to always be marketing. When they take ownership of the company voice, they'll be confident in addressing any scenario and interacting with all types of customers.

Here are four ways to find that consistent voice:

1. Declare your values. Make sure your employees know what your companytruly stands for. There's a famous example from Zappos in which a customer service rep helped a caller order a pizza. Maybe you don't want your reps calling Papa John's, but the moral of the story is that the employee knew it was the right thing to do because his employer made its values clear to him: Go above and beyond in customer engagement.

2. Establish rules of engagement. What decisions are your employees allowed to make without the approval of a manager? This is perhaps the most important thing to communicate because it will empower them to handle issues quickly and completely without putting the customer on hold while they get approval from a higher-up.

3. Set the tone. What does your company sound like? What words do you always use, and which ones do you avoid? Drill these accepted phrases and words into your company's lexicon so employees will naturally use them when interacting with customers.

4. Practice. Map out as many potential scenarios as possible, and see how your employees respond to them. Conduct role-playing exercises, and critique their performances as a group. These types of activities will actively engage employees and prepare them for when a true crisis arises.

Once your employees find their voice, don't be afraid to turn over the reins. Southwest Airlines has a company blog and allows any employee to contribute to it. Viewpoints from across the entire company give the blog a unique, human voice that brings the airline to life.

Maybe blogging isn't for your company, but providing any forum that allows employees to showcase their personalities and creativity is a great way to build up their marketing chops. That way, your entire company will be more than ready to confidently respond to PR disasters.

Build your crisis plan today. Standardize how you'll respond to complaints, outrage, and general inquiries via social media, email, and the press. Who in your company will be responsible for which parts of the plan, and who will be the final decision maker during crises?

Is today the day your social media crisis explodes? I hope not. But whenever it happens, make sure you're prepared to act swiftly, professionally, and consistently.

Published on: Jul 1, 2015