Last week Progressive insurance got swept away in a viral firestorm of negative Internet opinion.  Progressive attorneys helped defend a driver in court who was accused of causing an accident that resulted in the death of a Progressive policyholder so they wouldn’t have to pay a claim.  The decedent’s brother, Matt Fisher, wrote about this on his tumbler blog in a post titled My Sister Paid Progressive Insurance to Defend Her Killer In Court.

Progressive’s response? A series of tweets proclaiming their innocence.

A situation like this sounds like a nightmare. Hopefully your business does not routinely find themselves opposite your client in a courtroom, but you should be ready for complaints via the Internet.

Here are some tips for small business owners who want to get started managing their reputation online.

Create a Google Alert for your business name

Actively monitor your Facebook page for customer comments

Monitor other services such as Google+, Twitter and Linked In for possible negative comments

If you find a negative comment be sure to respond in a positive, professional manner.

Cool Off Scream, yell, complain to your colleagues, go to the gym, run around the block, whatever, but don’t respond while you are still angry.

Respond In Person Nothing is worse than what looks like a canned or automated response. This was probably Progressive’s biggest mistake. Rather than actively engaging they just sent Flo-bot out to do the job.

Don’t be sarcastic Be as professional as responsible, and if necessary, contrite when crafting a response. There’s no need to apologize if you being wrongly accused, but don’t be afraid to own up to your own mistake.

Present the facts Don’t go overboard on defending yourself, but share any relevant facts about the issue that may help mitigate the situation.

Offer a solution Share what you are going to do to correct the situation and/or ensure it doesn’t happen in the future.

Follow up offline Let the commenter know that you are going to follow up with a phone call or an email and discuss the issue one on one rather than in a public forum.

The Internet is where we do business, even for tiniest the most tech phobic business. Hopefully these tips will help you keep an eye on your online reputation and avoid the pitfalls that Progressive fell into.