In just over a decade social networking use has grown from just 5 percent of Americans in 2005 to nearly 80 percent today (sources: Pew Research Center and Social networking is now part of our daily DNA, whether we are at work or at play, and has become the most prevalent way we share and consume information. The popularity of social media is just one reason businesses have made this channel an important part of their marketing strategies.

But the reward that comes with social networking is not without risk. What you say and how you say it on social media can have a dramatic impact on your business reputation. And often unforeseen issues can arise that damage your image regardless of how thoughtful and transparent you try to be on social networks.

In today’s digital era — when public opinion can turn on a tweet — it pays to pay attention, be aware of the potential risks and follow best practices to make your communications as effective online as they are offline. Here are eight rules for social media engagement you and your employees can follow to head off a social media crisis disaster.

Rule 1: Develop a Thoughtful Social Strategy

Content may be king, but without a coherent plan remember: there’s always someone looking to behead the monarch. Understand your audience and the purpose of your online content. Define your goals and what you hope to achieve. Know how you will manage and monitor your content. A haphazard approach not only may not work, it’s also more likely to get you into trouble.

Carefully define what is and what is not acceptable to include or share on your social media sites. This means developing a social media policy and making sure you are following the policies for the platforms you use. Post moderation guidelines of your own so your users are aware of the proper conduct expected.

Rule 2: Think before you speak, act, post

How many times have you reacted to someone’s tweet or post with the comment, “Did he (or she) really say that?” A provocative or nasty comment may feel right at the time, but will make you look thin-skinned to those who aren’t caught up in the heat of your argument. It doesn’t pay to offend, berate, belittle or insult your social connections. And never get angry online. If you need a litmus test, ask yourself: how would my mother react to that comment or image?

Rule 3: Have a crisis plan ready

When to remember that life preserver? Before you realize you don’t know how to swim. As the old Scout motto goes, Be Prepared. A crisis communications playbook is your version of the Boy Scout’s Handbook. Like the Handbook, your crisis plan should include risk management policies and practices, guidelines for evaluating and reporting a social media crisis if one occurs, alert and notification information and communications materials that can be deployed in an instant. You are much more likely to communicate clearly and effectively if you have a solid social media crisis plan in place, ready to go. Most crises seemingly come out of nowhere, so plan for the unexpected.

Rule 4: Prepare your crisis team

Clearly outline their roles and responsibilities. Your team should include representatives from communications, HR, legal, IT, marketing and executive management (for a full-blown crisis). All team members should be familiar with the crisis plan, what to do, when and how to do it in the event the unthinkable occurs. It helps to have templates for social statements, media, press releases and other relevant communications prepared in advance.

 Rule 5: Practice your plan

Run crisis scenarios with your team. A half-day rehearsal at least annually helps keep everyone fresh. Media train your spokesperson. Video of your CEO to address how the company is resolving a crisis can be a very effective communication tool to demonstrate your authenticity and transparency in a social media crisis.

In addition, don’t overlook the social media security risks that may thwart your company’s best intentions. Make cybersecurity training a key part of your risk management and crisis preparedness efforts.

Rule 6: Adapt key messages

Acknowledge legitimate complaints and respond swiftly. Offer an email or phone number to take the conversation offline if complaints persist. Adopt the appropriate tone. Rudeness is even more glaring in the social media spotlight. Apologize when necessary. Keep your messaging consistent across platforms. Your prepared media statements and social messaging provide a great starting point, but then adapt the materials for your situation and circumstances. Update your messaging as the situation evolves. In the immediate aftermath of a crisis, do not be afraid to say, “I don’t know the answer to that now as we are gathering all of the facts. I’ll find out and get back to you.” In the so-called “post-truth” era, passing along incorrect information or misinformation can easily be called out.

 Rule 7: Know when to escalate

Not every issue warrants a Red Alert. Many can be resolved with minimum pain or adversity. But like a smoldering fire can ignite suddenly, there can be telltale signs of simmering resentment. Look at the quantity and quality of negative mentions on your sites. Analyze their tone and sentiment. Understand the scope and scale of every negative social situation: who is impacted, how (and how many), and what will the lingering effects be (if any, real or imagined). A random comment by an anonymous customer can be far less damaging than a rant by a top social media influencer. What will happen if you do nothing? Where is this likely to go from here? When the volume and velocity of comments begins to increase, let your supervisor or manager know right away. Bring in crisis professionals with experience managing these situations if the situation feels beyond your control.

Rule 8: Learn from your mistakes

Every social blunder is a learning opportunity. An elephant may never forget, but social fans and foes alike will usually forget and forgive when you do the right thing. In a few rare cases, you may come across a persistent social hater who seems bound to take you down. Some may use profanity or break other rules that violate social media etiquette. Keep copies of all comments, tweets, posts and emails for these online conversations. Most of all, realize you don’t have to take it. It’s O.K. to delete, block or mute unsavory posts that become spam or are taken to an extreme. Once you’ve exhausted all constructive approaches, know when to call foul.

If you do experience a more aggressive social media crisis, conduct a post-mortem once things settle down. Analyze traffic patterns: when did the crisis begin and end, where did it spread and how? How effective was your crisis plan: what worked well, what did not, and what can you improve upon?

As with any form of communication, with social media there often can be a big gap between perception and reality, between intent and irresolution, between understanding and disapproval. Advance planning will help you find your footing and weather the storm

The views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my current or former employers, my friends and colleagues, anyone I may have met in the past or may meet in the future.

About Mary Brophy

Mary has held leadership positions at the world’s largest independent PR agency, Edelman Worldwide, Cramer-Krasselt, Jacobson Rost and other leading agencies. Her background includes advising CEO-level executives on a variety of crisis communications and reputational issues.