Word-of-mouth has always mattered when it comes to finding great products and services. Every marketer knows a recommendation from a neighborover the back fence carries more weight than which company added enough letter A’s in its name to come first in the phone book

With the introduction of social media platforms — and the internet itself, really — word-of-mouth has morphed into a much deeper culture of product ratings, reviews, public customer service complaints, anti-brand campaigns and even brand meltdowns. Whether your company does something wrong or right, someone is bound to mention it somewhere (or everywhere) online.

Sound scary? It can be, if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Your best hope of maintaining a great reputation online — beyond the obvious first step of providing reliably great products and service — is to be proactive about the messages, content and responses you send into the social ether. The more voices speaking in your favor, the less likely it is the negative commentary will drown them out.

And when it comes to putting those messages out, your employees are undoubtedly your most golden resource. Who else knows your products better? Who else knows your customers better? Who else knows the kudos (and the put-downs) you receive better than the folks who hear them firsthand?

Plus, consumers are more likely to trust the faces behind a brand than the brand itself. They want to connect with “humans”— so why not have your very own human employees reach out?

Here are four ways your employees can help drive your brand advocacy online:

  • Put them on the front lines both off- and online. At online retailer, Zappos, CEO Tony Hsieh allows customer service employees to cycle through the company’s Twitter account during open hours to deal with customer questions, complaints and raves. Each staffer brings a unique personality and tone to the account, transforming what could be a chilly customer service channel into more of a “warm and fuzzy” forum. Of course, these staffers also know what they’re talking about, since they’ve already honed their service skills offline.
  • Share their experiences with your customers. JetBlue employees often blog on the company’s behalf to share success stories, challenges, customer experiences and frequent “behind-the-scenes” looks. Customers end up feeling less like outsiders and more like part of a “family” when they fly with the JetBlue crew.
  • Collaborate with them on your customer service policies. Your employees have had to deal with your existing customer service policies — for better or for worse — so it’s a good idea to bring them into the discussion when setting your service protocols online. This enables you to use their experience as an asset to avoid public mishaps, and it also ensures that your policies achieve more buy-in internally.
  • Face trouble with transparency. In the face of bad PR, human interaction makes a stronger connection than a flat company statement and makes customers feel like they’re being heard when they give feedback. Keep in mind that it takes a lot of patience to pull this off, though. No one wants to watch an employee meltdown after customers push the wrong buttons.

The more positive impressions you can make online, the better. They work in your favor to overcome the concerns and complaints a potential customer might see online. Your employees should be an important part of making those impressions and creating the very real, human connection that transforms customers into brand advocates.

So always remember: Your brand is an invaluable tool, a referent for company-wide behavior and decision-making. Make sure your employees know your brand inside and out, so the customer experience you wish to be imparted becomes, in fact, the one that is imparted. Here, as always, the best defense is a good offense.