The Importance of Online Transparency in BusinessThere was a time when big brands had a lot of control over how they were perceived and how they were portrayed in the media. Consumers had limited options when it came to communicating with brands, and the companies themselves had the power to create demand for products simply through being good at PR. Those days ended with the advent of widespread internet access and the rise of social media. Today, the power is in the hands of the consumer.

People now expect to be able to have two-way conversations with brands. Bad products are ridiculed, and news of poor customer service or unethical business practices spreads quickly.  Good news travels fast too, and even small gestures can go viral and have a huge impact on your brand’s bottom line. There is also a new generation of influencers in the form of bloggers, YouTube users and internet celebrities – and any bad experiences they have with a brand will be shared with their followers and are sure to make a big impact there.

Reviews, forums and rating websites also mean that your company and product is always under the scrutiny of online consumers. If people don’t like something, they can voice their opinion to other people interested in the product or service (and conversely with those who are already using the brand). Many consumers will complain directly on a company’s social media pages and they expect answers. This is where being transparent is truly crucial.

Who’s Doing it Right and Who’s Getting it Wrong?

Let’s take the example of Royal Caribbean cruises. The cruise company had a difficult year in 2013, with two news articles on the front page of Google that discussed problems with their ships, including one article about a fire which broke out on a ship in May, forcing more than 2000 passengers to abandon the ship mid-cruise.

Royal Caribbean handled their difficulties poorly, and provided very little information about what was going on. Friends and family members were left in the dark, and even the media commented on how unresponsive the company’s leaders were. Contrast this with major airlines such as JetBlue, Delta and Virgin, who all use social media to communicate with their customers and keep people informed about delays, equipment changes and other issues that may affect their journeys. Many companies now allow customers to contact them directly through social media to solve any issues, some even have dedicated pages or online help teams.

What Should You Do?

When you’re faced with a PR disaster, whether large or small, it’s important to communicate with your customers as clearly and honestly as possible. Ignoring issues does not make them any less of a problem. If a prospective customer sees that you are not answering questions, they will lose faith in your company.

Social media transparency is not about controlling what is said about your company. Rather, it involves conducting yourself in the best possible fashion. If someone complains, thank them for their feedback and make things right if you can do so. If someone asks a question, answer it. Don’t delete comments, and don’t try to stifle conversations. Even negative feedback can make your brand look good, as long as you handle it in the right way. Most consumers understand that no company is perfect; what they care about is how you handle problems if and when they arise.

Author Bio: Rebecca Fox is a marketing graduate who writes for Foxhall Business Centres. She enjoys writing about branding, customer management and all things business.