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Too often in both business and life, perception is reality. How people see you dictates how—or whether—they’ll engage with you, and much of their perception is driven by what other people say about you. Are you seen as ethical, effective, and trustworthy? Or have discontented customers and bad press given you a less-than-stellar reputation?

The benefits of positive public standing are many. Customers prefer doing business with reputable companies, even when their products and services are available at a similar cost and quality. And they don’t have to be, because well-regarded firms can charge a premium.

Beware: In today’s always-on world, reputations can be made or broken with a few keystrokes. Anyone can comment on anything, and a tweet from an ordinary customer that goes viral has as much impact as a mountain of positive press. A mini-industry has sprung up around erasing bad reviews. Whole YouTube channels exist just to slam a company and its products, while “I Hate…” Facebook pages spring up at the slightest corporate misstep.

Here’s how to proactively protect your company’s reputation in an era when one unhappy customer with an axe to grind can easily ruin it.

1. Add a symbol of trustworthiness

Associate yourself with governing bodies that stand for quality and integrity within your industry. Become a member, and use their logo to make known your participation. The link lets you harness their credibility and builds your own, elevating you in the eyes of those who know and trust the organization in question. Don’t join too many, though—you’ll look like you’re overcompensating. Associate yourself with the one whose values and ethics most closely match your own.

2. Use social selectively

Pick one social media platform and gather a cohort of loyal followers. Construct a well-thought-out social media plan—don’t just throw darts at the board and hope something sticks. Make sure you have a clear idea of what you want to say, and stick to topics that are meaningful to readers of the platform in question. Focus on quality, not just quantity—how many times you post doesn’t matter as much as what they say and how they contribute to your audience.

3. Stay positive

Be consistently upbeat in how you speak, write, pitch, deal with complaints and so on. Never respond to comments or reviews in anger. People have a tendency to share negative experiences a lot more readily than they positive ones, and a rude email from customer service tends to catch fire online quickly. If you spot a negative Tweet or Facebook post, don’t argue. Do apologize for the consumer’s unhappy experience, and make it clear that you’ll try to make things right for them. No need to play out the details in the public eye—offer to contact them privately, either personally or via your customer service department. Give them every reason to write a new, positive review after that interchange.

4. Speak with your voice

Be authentic and honest. Nobody wants to read corporate spin, so make sure that the tone you use on social media platforms is human and fits your target market. You want to come across as trustworthy; that means being transparent and open, and reacting authentically to negative posts and comments rather than trying to cover your back with marketing or sales talk.

5. Monitor and measure

You can only improve what you measure, so regularly monitor comments about your company and reputation in public forums, recognizing and acting on the perceived strengths and weaknesses that users highlight.

• • • • •

Your good name and reputation is your greatest asset in business. Protect yours. Be proactive in putting your best face forward, deal diplomatically with your critics, and enthusiastically with your fans, and make sure the stories you want heard are the ones getting told most often.

Corrine Sandler is a serial entrepreneur, thought leader and top 100 Woman entrepreneur. She is the CEO of ValidateIt™, a technology insight platform, and the founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Fresh Intelligence®, a custom global market research agency. Both businesses build on her mission of making insights and intelligence accessible to the world.

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