It is a truth universally acknowledged by all business leaders nowadays that when something goes wrong you can be sure the whole world is going to hear about it, and they're going to hear about it very, very fast.

This month alone, companies as diverse as UK travel operator, Thomas Cook, United Arab Emirates telecom Etisalat and Canada's BC Ferries have found themselves caught up in social media storms either because of the way they have treated customers or because of short-sighted marketing campaigns that backfired when the public started having their say.

Reputation, in a world where social media is the mainstream, can no longer be seen as just a "hygiene" issue where corporate comms and PR agencies handle a few annoying but easily identifiable stakeholders. Instead, when the whole online world can see and comment on your dirty laundry, reputation actually becomes a fundamental part of sustainability. Not least because, all too often, the corporate transgression has a direct effect on the wellbeing of customers, greater society or the planet.

In Sustainly's latest Trend Briefing we've analysed the short but volatile history of social media mistakes and identified ten key lessons to help companies avoid the pitfalls of the past. This matters because, when you look at the hundreds of social media failures that have taken place since the Kryptonite lock fiasco in 2004, the same faux pas keep happening over and over again.

In many cases, the pitfalls companies tumble into are organizational. There continue to be many examples of companies delegating Twitter, Facebook and Instagram management to junior employees or to external PR and digital agencies without the checks and balances you would expect in a professional communication structure. Other mistakes occur because of a lack of digital literary or appreciation of the power of technological disruption. The companies that dismissed the importance of blogging back in 2006 aren't that removed from the companies of today who assume Vine can't pose a reputational risk because its users are "just a bunch of kids." In both cases there's the similar underlying risk of underestimating the power of a platform just because you don't use it.

So, whether it's Motrin underestimating the power of a new connected online movement (Moms, in its case), Chevy Tahoe failing to see that crowdsourcing gives the public the power to define your brand, or United Airlines being caught short by the speed of online outrage that can swell up when social and mainstream media come together, the lessons for better reputation management when things go wrong are clear.

Ultimately, companies will continue to make mistakes and they'll continue to be blindsided by some new social media campaign or attack they weren't expecting. However, with all that we now know about the way social media works there's no excuse for not being prepared to respond in a mature and sensible manner. Oh, and there's no excuse for shooting yourself in the social media foot.

Published on: May 27, 2015