Public relations (PR) is a powerful tool for companies. As noted by Forbes, small businesses now have an edge when it comes to forward-thinking PR moves. But there's another side to public relations: the small business PR crisis.

Whether it's a customer complaint on your Facebook page, a sticky personal situation with an employee or the need to dispel a false rumor, here's how your company can leverage your social media presence to help address a crisis and help restore brand integrity.

Respond Quickly

Social media moves at blinding speed. If a PR nightmare becomes a reality, consumers have already heard something through the grapevine. Staying silent offers no benefit, since that lets someone else frame the narrative of your story and dictate the ending.

Listen, Then Talk

Once you've made first contact, it's tempting to keep talking. Don't. According to O'Dwyer PR, listen first and talk second, since in many cases users have more information than you realize. It's possible that a photo, video or details about interactions or conversations will pop up on social media if the issue gains steam. While it's hard to resist the urge, keep posts to a minimum until you've got a clear picture — both internal and external — of exactly what happened.

Mean What You Say

Even if you've been misunderstood or don't agree that an apology is called for, make a sincere one anyway. Customers are your lifeblood and trying to argue or shame them into liking your brand again is guaranteed to backfire. If you're dealing with a small business PR crisis, social media acknowledgment is always the best policy.

Be Honest

Armed with a wealth of constantly updated information, social-savvy users know if you're not telling the truth. PR Newswire recommends that companies "Provide transparent and honest answers in order to demonstrate trustworthiness and show your customers that you care." Being caught in a lie — even a small, well-intentioned one — can damage customer perception of your brand and make a bad situation worse.

Update Regularly

One key benefit of social media for handling a small business PR crisis is brevity: You don't need (or want) to make long-winded or complicated posts. Keep things short and simple with regular updates — spaced between 10 and 30 minutes — even if it's just to tell users you're still looking into the matter or working on a fix.

Plan Well

While it's impossible to predict what will touch off a PR crisis, the effects are immediate and often widespread. As a result, you need a PR response plan in place prior to facing a critical situation. Trying to design a strategy on the fly wastes valuable time that could be used for social media damage control. Your plan should include specific channels and response types, and you should designate one individual as the spokesperson for your brand.

Facing a PR nightmare? Use social media to your advantage by responding quickly, listening well, providing regular, honest updates and wholehearted apologies informed by an adaptable crisis response plan.

Tags: small business public relations PR crisis social media