Name one organization which hasn’t been slammed, perhaps unfairly, online.  A web presence opens you to negative postings, anonymous and bylined, by the media, consumers, reviewers (professional and amateur), and those who simply enjoy stirring up trouble.  That goes with the territory.  So, be prepared to handle “flaming,” either by one party or an organized posse.  Like controversy in general, if this is managed well, it could be turned to your advantage.

Here are the 6 rules of the road:

* Don’t panic.  This is now a predictable event in operating an organization.  To avoid panic, have in-place policies and procedures for not only damage control but transforming the incidents into opportunities to highlight your values, products, services, and causes.  After all, the spotlight is on you.  Use it.

A key constituency is your own employees, board members, vendors, community, and customer base.  All these groups must be kept in the loop.  That should be part of your crisis communications plan.

* Analyze if the criticism has validity.  If so, apologize online.  What begins online has to be handled online.  If useful, you can extend that to offline as with press releases, interviews with mainstream media broadcast and print, and hosting special events such as town meetings.  A sincere apology can enhance consumer relations.  In a recent survey, Arnold Worldwide found that only 39% of organizations respond to consumer beefs.  When Facebook apologized to members for documented breaches of privacy, the issue lost its heat.

If the criticism is inaccurate, provide the facts.  This is a crisis.  As in all crisis communications, get as many verified facts out there as soon as they are available. Start online, and then decide if adding offline would be useful.  If the postings are bylined, contact those individuals and organizations directly, with the facts.  Ask their cooperation in making public this correction.  Be nice.  Don’t threaten lawsuits.  Those who do and actually pursue them wind up giving the story legs and accumulating six and seven figures in legal costs, even before the situation nears settlement or a trial. 

* Have third parties lined up for support.  Their postings on the web not only create positive publicity for you.  They help drive down on search engines the negative material. 

* Flood the plane with your own digital matter.  If they are formatted for search engine optimization (SEO) and contain compelling information and insights, they could gain prime placement on search engines and links from influential sources.  Do this right and you will enhance your professional network, both in digital communications and for strategic partnerships. 

 * Stay positive.  As in all professional life and in our personal activities, it’s not what happens to us but how we handle it. The classic examples of that are the media ups and downs of the candidates at all levels in Campaign 2012.  The most adept at managing good and bad coverage are likely to be elected next November. Running for office has evolved into the game of impression management.

A crisis usually has a beginning, middle, and an end.  At each phrase be strategic about what messages are useful and will resonate at the time.  Once on the web, always on the web.  In a sense, you are being handed the gift of overseeing a publicity campaign that has built-in audiences.  Yes, you are turning a lemon into lemonade.

* Attend to housekeeping.  What should you be changing inhouse to reduce the odds that this kind of crisis will happen in the future?

* Move on.  When this blows over, reconfigure your communications to be fresh and focused on the now.  Organizations which get stuck in the crisis, which ironically should have already passed, invite reputational torture, ridicule, and informal boycotts.

A master in moving on has been Hillary Clinton.  Incidentally now U.S. Secretary of State Clinton learned well from her mediocre digital communications during her unsuccessful presidential run.  They were vilified.  In all mediums – digital, print, video, audio, and on-her-feet – she handles herself better as a result of that stumble.

Meme for Digital Times: Everything on the web, positive or negative, presents a positioning and packaging opportunity.

Kate Sirignano, founder of Image Marketing Consultants, invites you for a complimentary consultation for you social media, marketing, advertising (including media buys), public relations, and special events 203-404-4868, kate@imagemarketingconsultants.com.