6763655377_4a41485361_zAs any half-decent PR professional will tell you, great public relations is often more about keeping certain items out of the news than winning new column inches or page views.

Back in the days when journalists where the only gatekeepers to the world’s media, burying bad news was a lot simpler. If your PR agency had a great relationship with an editor, unfavorable content could be made to go away. A disgruntled client might have told their friends about a bad experience but without the support of a much wider network, this negative sentiment would rarely have any significant impact on a brand.

The Internet and social media has completely changed this.

Journalists no longer have the monopoly on breaking news and the next big thing is much more likely to be discovered first on social media than in any print or broadcast media. In today’s socially-enabled environment, the people who consume the media are the media.

This means, particularly in an age when big business, politicians and the media itself are under increased public scrutiny, what is said on social media could potentially (and very quickly) make or break a reputation.

I like to think that most of us are fairly decent, honest people. This doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes from time to time and when we do, they can have serious repercussions which are increasingly likely to be highlighted on social media and have the potential to spread quickly.  The social media backlash from a simple error of judgement left unchecked can be devastating.

Make no mistake, social media represents a significant threat to your brand. Thankfully, social media also represents a huge opportunity.

Burying bad news doesn’t work on social media. Putting things right does.

The first step is listening. The second is engagement.

It is much easier to win the hearts and minds of clients (and potential clients) with a campaign of honesty. After all, to err is human; to forgive, divine. If you have made a genuine mistake or perhaps not treated a client with the care they deserve, social media gives a brand the opportunity to apologize and make reparations (making sure your customer facing employees have all been made aware of the situation so the problem doesn’t occur again).

Showing a little humility humanizes a brand and will make your organization more likable. Yes, it is true, social media can make us all more honest and better people, and because people buy from people they like this can only reflect in your bottom line.

This post first appeared on the Viralheat blog.

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Photo credit: Laszlo Ilyes