If the phrase "social media mishap" were a listing in the dictionary, chances are you'd find these real-life companies included as definition examples: Amy's Baking Company, Taco Bell, and Epicurious.

Whether because of a Facebook posts gone wrong (as in the case of Amy's Baking Company and Taco Bell) or a Twitter post that has received outrage from readers and the press (Epicurious), these companies all landed in the same spot: in the middle of a huge public backlash after making a social media mistake.

Although some people believe there's no such thing as bad publicity, most businesses would prefer to stay out of the spotlight of a social media mistake.

Here are four steps you can take to avoid making social media mistakes that may give you a negative reputation online.

1. Think before you post

No company wants to be the recipient of negative comments on social media, and there's one simple way to help prevent their occurrence: Think before you post.

In the case of Amy's Baking Company, the company's owners started to receive media attention in 2010 after responding negatively to a Yelp review about their restaurant. They also posted insulting comments about their detractors on the company's own Facebook page shortly thereafter. The owners claimed someone unknown to them had hacked their Facebook account and posted the insults.

Regardless of who posted the disparaging remarks, the key takeaway is this: Don't post rude comments or become overly defensive to the point of insulting others on your social media pages. Doing so is one of the quickest ways to land in the middle of a social media nightmare.

If you feel the need to write a response, ensure that your emotions are not running wild. If you're unsure of how your response sounds, have a trusted friend or business associate read it before posting. However, if you think a comment on your page is unrelated to your business or it's made by a troll, it is perfectly acceptable to report and remove any comments that you consider profane or threatening, or those that make you feel unsafe. However, if someone posts a comment that falls into the "legitimate complaint" category, resist the urge to delete it, because that may lead to backlash from your fans.

2. Be careful when 'newsjacking'

"Newsjacking" entails tying your product or service to a well-known national or international news story for the purpose of marketing. Although newsjacking is an acceptable marketing practice, sensitivity to the news story must be thought of before posting. Failing to consider how a story will affect your readers is a definite way to make a huge social media mistake.

Some examples of news jacking and the public outrage that ensued on social media afterward include an email by American Outfitters and tweets by Epicurious, both of which tied some online marketing efforts to national tragedies.

But if a tragedy occurs and your company has decided to help in the aftermath in legitimate ways, such as fundraising, collecting food, holding a blood drive, or more, promoting those activities on social media is a great way to demonstrate community involvement and company culture.

3. Have a social media policy

Ensure that you have a social media policy in place and that all employees understand the policy, including any consequences for violations. In the case of Taco Bell, an employee was fired after posting a photo to his personal social media page that showed him licking a stack of taco shells.

Taco Bell investigated and determined that the shells were never served to the public and that the image was a rejected photo taken for an internal company contest. Nevertheless, the damage was done on social media when the photo went viral. The employee was fired for violating the company's social media policy.

4. Stay alert

By setting up an online notification system, such as Google Alerts, you can monitor what is being said about you or your business online. Also make sure to frequently check social media pages for mentions and tags of your business name to fully monitor your online reputation.

Knowing what your customers are saying about your company enables you to take the necessary steps to resolve any complaints before they get out of control. By being proactive in complaint resolution, you're not only providing excellent service to your customers but also helping prevent those complaints from spreading and growing through social media.

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Avoid an Online Crisis: Four Key Tips to Prevent Social Media Mistakes

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image of Amy Neeley

Amy Neeley is a content marketing manager at ReachLocal. She helps small and midsize businesses navigate the online marketing world.

LinkedIn: Amy L. Neeley

Twitter: @AmyLNeeley