Online conflicts can cost businesses thousands of dollars (and hours) to resolve. Andrea Weckerle, author of the recently published book Civility in the Digital Age: How Companies and People Can Triumph over Haters, Trolls, Bullies and Other Jerks, is an attorney with experience developing alternative dispute resolution programs for Fortune 500 companies. She also founded a nonprofit organization called CiviliNation that works to encourage the exchange of ideas online without abuse or harassment.

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I invited Andrea to Marketing Smarts to share her thoughts on how companies can protect themselves when an online situation turns critical. Here are just a few highlights from our conversation:

Start preparing for online conflict before you have a problem (15:55) "Look at...your conflict culture. What is it that you want to achieve? Be very specific about this: Do you want to avoid problems, do you want to protect your reputation? Be very proactive with your conflict management approach."

Have a "dark site" ready to launch, and identify and train the people who will handle your crisis communications in advance (17:00): "Having a dark site in place is a huge thing that not enough companies do, so if an inevitable screw up happens online...they scramble."

Consider carefully how to respond when your company becomes a target of the mob mentality online (22:30): "Be responsive to the criticism. If there's something that is factually incorrect, then... try to correct it...but don't be defensive. Let the situation play itself out."

Make it known that you are listening (23.37): "Try to engage one on one with the most vocal detractors or the ones that hold the most power online.... You can't possibly respond to every single individual online, but try to be responsive so the greater public can see that you do care about the situation and that you're trying to act in a responsible manner."

Know when a statement is actionable, as opposed to just rude (27:32): "Things such as defamation are not permissible, whether offline or online... Defamation is a false and unprivileged statement of fact that is harmful to somebody's reputation and that's published...either through negligence or malice."

Why filing a lawsuit might not be your best option (29:19): "A huge thing you need to think about is what your long-term goal is. Is it simply to correct that information, or is it also to try to make that information 'go away' to a certain extent? Let's talk about a gossip online site for example... If you pursue that [claim] in a legal arena, the situation will probably become amplified, because they thrive on controversy."

My conversation with Andrea included much more. I encourage you to listen to the entire show, which you may do above, or download the mp3 and listen at your convenience. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

Music credit: Noam Weinstein.