Businesses are increasingly looking to the Internet to raise their brand’s profile. Marketers are taking to social media to garner followers to market to, but chasing these customers has its own dangers and drawbacks.

With increased visibility comes greater responsibility. With more people watching, it has become easier to tarnish a brand’s reputation. Companies spend a lot of money and time developing their brand identity, and in the age of social media, the same brand can be destroyed with a single errant Tweet or Facebook message.

A number of companies have had to do damage control after they went viral for the wrong reasons. Last year, US Airways, an American airline, came under fire after a sexually explicit picture was posted in response to a customer complaint. The inappropriate response was quickly retweeted around the world.

Even if the brand is not responsible for the dissemination of information it can still find itself having to do damage control. Locally, a KFC branch in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, found itself riding a social media storm earlier this year when a picture of its staff washing chicken on the ground with a hosepipe was posted online by a concerned consumer.

Emma Sadleir, a lawyer specialising in social media law, advises company who feel their brand is being tarnished online to apologise and fix the problem before going the legal route.

“Often the legal route is too slow. It can take up to three years for a case to go through the courts, so the PR response is better,” she says.

KFC responded by releasing a full-page advert in a Sunday magazine to explain the actions of the staff, and apologise.

Sadleir says people are becoming more aware of the importance of maintaining a good reputation online.

“More and more people are starting to realise how important reputation is. Someone can look you up on Instagram and Google, so it is important to ensure that things are fine,” she adds.

Toys With Roots, an online company that recently started marketing popular Ntombentle dolls on social media, had to learn how to deal with internet trolls.

Mpumi Mostsabi, owner of the company, says she has had to handle an online threat to her brand. She chose to ignore the negative press, and fortunately for her, supporters of the dolls were quick to deal with the problem on the company’s behalf.

“In the beginning, right when the hype was high, there was a group with a similar concept to ours working on Twitter. A number of our own followers finally forced the fake profile off Twitter and demanded an apology,” she says.

There are a number of ways to protect your brand while reaping the benefits of social media:

  1. Avoid getting too personal.
  2. Do not give the wrong people access.
  3. Be careful of using every platform just for the sake of using them.

The technological era has made it essential for companies to have a social media strategy. The democratisation of the online space means that everyone now has a platform from which to air their views.

“The best thing about social media is that everyone has a voice. The worst thing about social media is that everyone has a voice,” concludes Sadleir.