Many of the executives we work with are terrified of social media. They've either experienced the dark side of it personally or heard horror stories from their industry peers: tales of vicious comments on an influential blogger's website, incorrect and damaging rumors on Twitter, or an embarrassing, secretly filmed video uploaded onto YouTube.
Those potential hazards are real. But executives tend to focus disproportionately on the downsides of social media and not nearly enough on the potential upsides. Their focus on the risks leads them to adopt a head-in-the-sand strategy of neglecting social media, which rarely works in the long term.
Social media offer today's communicators a tremendous advantage over their predecessors.
Think back for a moment to the turn of the 21st century, when journalists were still the primary gate keepers of information. If a company wanted media attention, it would send a press release to a few reporters and wait passively as the reporters decided whether or not to cover the story. Even if the company's work was covered, there was no guarantee of the story being favorable. Companies were at the mercy of the press.
To be sure, those reporters remain critical allies today. Positive stories by the media still bestow valuable third-party credibility onto you, while negative stories can diminish your reputation.
But the traditional media's influence is waning. Social media has flattened the playing field, allowing companies to disseminate the information they want, to whomever they want, whenever and however they want. There's no longer a need to wait for a journalist to file a story--if companies want their audiences to know something, they can just post it to their blog, Facebook page, or Twitter feed.
If you're still deciding whether or not to maintain a social media presence, the answer should almost surely be yes. Your audiences aren't waiting for you to interact--they're already talking about you. Companies that engage their audiences can build positive relationships, create a reservoir of goodwill to tap into when a crisis strikes, and help prevent false rumors from spreading before they take deep root.
If you work for a company, your social networks offer you free market research that used to cost thousands. If you work for an advocacy group, your networks tell you which appeals are most likely to spur donations before you invest in a major campaign. If you work for a government agency, your social networks will let you know what public misperceptions you need to clear up.
Journalists are also turning to social media in droves to learn more about you. If you're not managing your reputation where your audiences are, you're nowhere--or worse.
Many businesses, nonprofit organizations, and politicians operate their own “newsrooms” today by releasing official news through their social media networks.
Musicians tout new albums on their Twitter feeds. Businesses introduce new products on their Facebook pages. Presidential contenders announce their candidacies through YouTube videos.
News released via social media often makes its way into the mainstream press. It's still a bit strange for us “old school” journalists to see today's news anchors reporting on what some politician said on Twitter, but they do. Traditional journalists often base their reporting on a statement released through a company's (or individual's) social media account.
Therefore, you should treat social media as a nonstop media interview. Instead of fielding questions from professional journalists, you will participate in a conversation with customers, critics, and activists. But journalists will be watching what you say, so remember that your interactions with the online community can become newsworthy--and often do.
Here are six best practices to keep in mind when communicating through social media:
Every social media network has its own culture. It would be inappropriate to post along business letter to Facebook, for example, but it might be okay to post a link to that letter. Spend some time getting to know each network before jumping in.
When starting with a new social media platform, listen to what people are saying about you. Are they criticizing your response to a crisis, praising your work, or expressing confusion with an old product's new feature? Listening before talking will help you align your communications with your audience's needs.
This isn't a one-way press release but a two-way conversation. Engage with your audiences. It's okay to use your networks to promote your products, but don't make selling the only thing you do. Answer customers' questions, express gratitude for praise, and candidly admit imperfection.
Most social networking sites are more casual than other forms of business communication. Casual doesn't mean racy, unnecessarily provocative, or unprofessional--it means that you come across as a “real” person, not a corporate lackey. One way to do that is to use everyday language instead of the formal business writing typically found in annual reports.
Many of our clients ask whether they should respond to negative feedback. The answer is usually yes. According to a 2011 Harris Interactive study, unhappy customers quickly forgave companies that responded to them. Thirty-three percent of customers who left a negative review on a shopping website ended up posting a positive review after receiving a response, while another 34 percent deleted the original review. Be cordial in your response--the rest of the audience will judge you based on the tone of your reply.
Track your social media sites at least daily, if not hourly (or appoint someone who can). Little will make your company appear less interested in your audience than being absent from your own coverage. I'm regularly surprised by companies that fail to respond to scathing comments on their own social networks, leaving other customers to conclude that the original accusations are probably correct.
Find more advice for interacting with the media in the Fast Company newsletter. 
Reprinted by permission of the publisher SpeakGood Press from THE MEDIA TRAINING BIBLE: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.  Copyright 2013 by Brad Phillips, President of Phillips Media Relations.
--Brad Phillips is president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm based in New York City. With its focus on ethical media training and messaging, clients include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Air Force, Hilton Hotels and Resorts, The Smithsonian Institute, Angie's List, and the National Weather Service, among others.
[Image: Flickr user Rob Chandanais ]