Most companies are aware of the importance of having a social media presence. A recent study, however, has proven once again that a willingness to jump into social networking does not necessarily mean that a company is prepared to handle any potential social media criticism.

The Ethical Corporation and Useful Social Media report (PDF), released in July, indicates that 73 percent of consumers believe that companies are only using their social media pages as an advertising platform. When a consumer attempts to communicate with a company through their Facebook page or Twitter account, it is important for that company to respond. In way too many instances, however, responses are not given, especially when the consumer’s comment contains a criticism.

Shocking low levels of preparedness to deal with social media criticism

Approximately 20 percent of the businesses that were contacted during the creation of the recent report stated that they feel completely unprepared to deal with social media criticism, especially on a grand scale. In addition to which, 72 percent said that they felt like their level of preparedness is either average or below average. These numbers are shocking because they highlight how easy it would be for a single controversy to spiral out of control and cause irreparable damage to a company’s reputation.

Over 901 million individuals around the world have a Facebook account, and 71 percent of the companies that participated in the study by the Ethical Corporation have set up a Facebook page for their business. It is common for people to interact with the Facebook pages they like in both positive and negative ways, but it is also apparently common for businesses not to respond. Consider for a moment how you would feel if you left a voice mail for a business associate and it was left unanswered. To your customers, leaving a Facebook comment or sending a tweet that is not replied to is basically the same thing, and it will create a negative impression about your business, especially since people are increasingly asking support via social media.

Why you need a strategy for handling social media criticism

Perhaps the biggest reason companies fail at properly managing social media and even blog comments, both positive and negative, is because they are not looking at the bigger picture. Yes, your social media accounts are designed to build brand awareness, traffic and relationships but you cannot look at them as simply free advertising resources. The most important aspect of social media is being social, and the social expectations are the same whether you are a massive corporation or an individual.

It is vital to develop a strategy for handling social media criticism. In the best case scenario, you will only have to respond to the occasional complaint left by a consumer. You should always respond positively by thanking them for reaching out to you. Let others see that you took the time to respond and that you carefully considered the person’s complaint as this will impress other consumers. The worst case scenario, however, is a massive boycott campaign.

Companies such as Chick-fil-A and Modell’s Sporting Goods have recently dealt with an onslaught of social media criticism and consumer complaints on their Facebook pages. What both companies quickly learned is that simply deleting comments will only encourage people to post an angrier message the second time. Instead of trying to hide from an issue, it is imperative to face it head on.

In the end, ignoring social media criticism will make many customers leave as social media usage continues maturing.

To avoid falling into the trap of being unprepared, it is best to appoint a small task force to the duty of keeping up with consumer comments and social media criticism, as well as planning for a potential crisis. By implementing a response plan now, you can curtail the damaging effects of consumer complaints.

This blog was originally published on Social Marketing Forum (read more here) and has moved as part of an integration. Join the community and author on LinkedIn.