Social Media is a unique public environment that has its own culture and expectations. Traditional customer service and public relations may not be enough. Here are some tips to handle complaints, negativity or inappropriateness online.

Document it

If a negative or controversial comment comes up on Twitter, Facebook, your website comments, etc., the first thing you should do is take a screen capture or document it in some way. Some things can be deleted or modified by the poster, so it is important to have proof if the matter is contested or the issue escalates to a more serious matter.

Do not delete negative comments

It will only aggravate the commenter, or move the conversation elsewhere. Deleting things on the internet is an illusion anyway, and will bring into question your integrity to not only the complainer, but all your followers. Do block users who abuse the site, and remove inappropriate comments (i.e., racist, derogatory, pornographic, etc.), ones that are too far off-topic, or just trying to use your site to sell a product or service.

Keep it cool

It's not uncommon that an offended customer or internet troll is trying to get an emotional reaction or response from their post. It is critical that you never take it personal or engage or challenge the person negatively. Remember, this is in public, and you are being judged by not only the poster, but all your followers. Act as if you are responding to an angry mob: being right might not be the end goal. You don't have to reply to everything. If the comment is clearly an attack or an effort to pick a fight, let it go.

Check your head

Social media is just like any other social experience to the extent that there is never a clear answer, it is chaotic and unpredictable just like any other social experience. Before reacting, communicate the issue to your colleagues and leadership. Also, the well-publicized social media mistakes made by larger organizations happened because they tried to make decisions in the board room with traditional public relations techniques by people who didn't participate in social media. They probably would have fared better if they asked their teenage children what to do. Traditional public relations techniques typically do not work in social media.

Don't delay

Word travels swiftly on social networks, so respond quickly, particularly during a crisis. We're talking hours (or less) here, not days. A slow response can damage a company's reputation.

Respond to each complaint in the public stream

The culture of social media demands that you are addressing the issue. That doesn't mean you have to discuss every detail in public. So tweet or comment back and say something like "please e-mail me more info" or "looking forward to helping you. Can you DM/message me more?" Also when it's resolved, tweet that back as well. Try "Thanks so much for letting us know. I hope the issue has been resolved for you?" Follow up is KEY. If it's on Facebook, make sure you comment on the original stream where the complaint was written.

You set the tone

The general nature and tone of your posts will, in a sense, set the rules of engagement on your site. A pleasant, positive, playful tone creates an atmosphere where aggressive negativity or attacks will seem out of place. In this scenario, it's even possible that your other followers will come to your defense so you don't have to. On the contrary, avoid sounding like an authority and never be a smart aleck, as the internet is always smarter.

Consider another avenue for complaints

Chances are, the customer is not seeking to rat you out on the social sites. They just want to vent to their friends, or force your hand to address the issue. So make sure you publicize other options for customers to talk to you and assurances that you will. Then follow through and get back to your customer quickly.

Keep your eyes open

Use Google Alerts to keep an eye on your reputation. Google Alerts and similar services allow you to enter search terms, such as your organization's name, your Twitter handle, and just about any other name or term that relates to your organization and product. The service scours the internet for any match to your terms and e-mails you when it finds any. Trial and error till you feel comfortable with the volume and nature of the matches.