Replacement Contractor: How likely is it that a company today will be tagged with negative information in the public domain, either in the media or on the Internet?

Caren Browning: We are living in the height of the information age. It's not just traditional media such as TV, radio, and print outlets that companies need to be concerned about. Blogs, chat rooms, Web sites, and video sites are also an active extension of the community.

Now more than ever people have an opportunity to voice their opinions, viewpoints, and perceived injustices. People are posting on Web sites, community boards, and blogs and exchanging their perspectives in chat rooms. They're even making their own videos and posting them for others to see. Because of this increased exchange of information, there is a higher probability that a company will be tagged by negative press.

RC: How should a company respond to negative postings on Internet chat rooms, bulletin boards, and community Web sites when the person posting is a disaffected customer?

CB: These are public forums where you are free to post anything you want. There's no one-size-fits-all solution when a negative situation arises.

The first move should always be to understand the situation accurately, and determine if a valid claim is being made, or if this is just a disgruntled person looking for attention, in which case it may be best to ignore the complaint. Especially if the company enjoys a good reputation and position in the community, it may be best to let the fever pass.

If there has been an error or mistake made by your company that has caused harm, honesty is the best policy. It may be prudent to post a brief but well-crafted response explaining how the problem will be solved. It may also help to track down the customer, clear the air, and make amends.

RC: Why is it important to address negative publicity, and at what point should the company owner begin to do that?

CB:Serious problems must be addressed immediately. Negative publicity can spiral out of control and change the public perception of a company. When you lose the public's respect, you lose business. Sales can slow down and, in the worst case ? though it is rare ? companies do go out of business.

RC: Can the company owner manage that himself? And if so, how would he go about doing it?

CB: It really depends on the situation. In small owner-operated businesses, it may be prudent for the owner to post a personal apology and explain what steps will be taken to remedy the situation. Again, before responding, the company should make every effort to determine the facts and speak to the specific issues at hand.

When working with the media, you should research whom you are working with and have a carefully crafted statement or message points, and don't be diverted from those messages.

RC: At what point would a company engage the services of a public relations professional to defuse potentially toxic publicity?

CB: It's like saving for a rainy day. A company should always be prepared for the worst-case scenario. It should examine where there is potential for crises, even if they never occur, and have response statements and an action plan ready. A public relations firm can help you put this together.

If your company regularly faces crises and negative publicity, you should have a PR firm on speed dial. If your company thinks it could be facing negative press for its activities, you should be working with a PR firm way ahead of time to plan for dealing with this. If your company rarely encounters a crisis, it might still be prudent to consider where negative publicity might crop up and to develop a simple action plan.

RC: Is there a point where legal action is appropriate or at least a consideration?

CB: If serious untruths or attacks are made against a business and have begun affecting the customers, or if customers, employees, or others are in danger because of the accusing actions, legal counsel should be considered.