Do people say bad things about your company online? I mean really bad things? Ugly things? Hurtful things? Do they Tweet endlessly while they wait for your customer service line to pick up? Are you getting Epic Fail awards for your shipping challenges? Reading about your products a little too often on Facebook? That’s beach warfare and it’s just what the Hand-Wringers warned you about when you suggested all this social media nonsense in the first place. “See,” they bleat. “People are saying terrible things about us out there in the open where everyone can see.” And while they do the I-Told-You-So Dance in your office, you need to figure out a way out of this.

While the Pear Analytics people tell us that a little under half of the splatter on Twitter is classified as spam, pointless babble about missing socks or shameless self promotion (Follow me on Twitter Today!) the rest is either conversations or re-tweets of useful information. Useful information can include advice about not doing business with your company, and conversations, I can assure you, frequently concern vendors.

It’s not just teenagers and bored day traders doing this either. More and more small business owners are jumping into LinkedIn groups, Facebook and Twitter, not just to drive business but to connect with other business people and ask questions about, say, your products. According to ECSB only about six percent of them actively use it to research purchases but a little over half of them are using social media these days, so it’s likely a few of them are pissed off enough to be social Porcupines. This is not what you want.

Let’s not forget about our Generation G friends, either. They’re wandering the halls of your business right now. They may just be looking for the exit but there’s a better chance they are texting someone in their vast network to find out where to buy the lame thing their lame boss just told them to price out.

Whether or not the terrible comments people are making are true doesn’t matter. They’re out there in front of the whole neighborhood and this is definitely not what you want. You want to bring the battle inside to your turf. Get it off the beach and into a cozy café where you can work things out in private over a lovely jug of margaritas.

To do this, you need to start getting your people to that beach. It’s tempting to build a bunch of bunkers high on the cliffs and just pick off the unhappy customers as they wade ashore. And this is what the Hand-Wringers and probably your Sucky Agency want you to do because it’s safe and not very messy. If you currently have your social media being managed by your Brand Police, your PR agency or, heaven help you, your ad agency, then you are on the cliffs, my friend.

I think you need to start looking for the cast of your own Corporate Baywatch squad. Give them a tube of sunscreen and show them how to sit high up in their lifeguard chairs and scan the waves for customers in trouble. Let them run into the surf with their little orange floats and drag that flailing future Porcupine back to shore.
(this paragraph is what happens when you play with metaphors while you drink)

It’s important, I think, to discourage public acts of resuscitation. Getting someone to stop walking into the light is rarely tidy and we don’t want the whole beach being put off its dinner.  Your Porcupine customers will survive for another few minutes while you get them into the café for a few chest compressions and the obligatory spitting out of water. Once they’re inside and stable enough to converse, why you break out the margaritas and start fixing whatever it is you did wrong.

By the way, I think the defibrillator of choice still really is the telephone. Even if the incident started in the great ocean of Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn (and soon, Google+)  heroic acts are intimate and nothing says intimate like a warm phone line. Or, if need be, a one-on-one chat. But no posting stuff to people’s walls or answering the entire group on behalf of one customer. In the first place, it’s not any of their business and in the second, you may not actually succeed.

Let’s stay at the beach a minute longer and discuss water safety.  If your Baywatch team is getting too big or not working up a lovely tan, then you are sending way too many drowning Porcupines their way. And this means your little swimming spot may not be that safe. You may need to follow Dell’s example and look at some preventative tools like online groups , product-specific support forums or their legendary Ideastorm.

Like undertow warning signs and jellyfish nets, good support forums, blogs, LinkedIn groups or other places to connect and vent (new buzzword: Convent?) can keep your customers out of the water and stop them from flaring their ugly quills. Pitney Bowes is also great at using B2B forums and there are thousands of good examples of LinkedIn groups like this one for lonely IBM mainframe users.