It's easy to plunge into social media. Sign up for a Twitter or Facebook account, and you've got your own little Speakers' Corner where you can bellow your message at a grateful public.
Before you start posting and interacting with your throngs of fans, Christopher Barger has some questions for you.
Barger is senior vice president of global programs at Voce Connect and a speaker at Ragan's upcoming Best Practices in PR conference . He has led social media programs at Fortune 50 companies including General Motors.
So he has some ideas about what companies need to do to cultivate the social landscape, rather than letting it turn into a badlands where nobody's in charge and feral customers prowl.
Often, Barger suggests, organizations will say, "'OK, we need to do something in social. Let's do a Facebook contest. Let's do something on Twitter.' ... They're all focusing on the tactics, or on just doing things for the sake of doing them."
Instead, Barger, who is author of the forthcoming book "The Social Media Strategist," suggests that you ask yourself a few questions:
1. Is your organization's social media strategy coordinated?
If marketing, PR and customer service are all pursuing different strategies, maybe it's time to stop feeding the Twitter beast for a minute and sit down and talk.
At minimum, Barger says, organizations need know whom to contact in each department. Otherwise, you could end up with multiple accounts and no common goals.
2. What are you trying to achieve?
When that hot-headed executive starts banging a shoe on the desk and demanding that you gin up Facebook fans or amass more followers, calm him or her down with a cup of cold water in the face, then open a broader discussion on what you're trying to accomplish online.
Barger asks, what defines success for you? What is going to make you feel like you got your money's worth?
"If you're simply trying to acquire Facebook fans, OK, well, what's the point?" he says. "When you get them, what do you do with them? What is the value of having a fan? … Is the goal to have them spend money? Is the goal just brand awareness?"
3. Have you drawn up different tactics for different platforms?
A YouTube strategy may be very different from what you do on Twitter or a blog. "Not every channel is going to be appropriate for everyone," Barger says.
4. Is someone in charge of carrying out your strategy?
If you decide that you need a blog because your competitor's doing it, well, perhaps you are right. Now comes the hard part.
"You have to think about who's going to create the content for that, and at a lot of organizations it doesn't happen," Barger says. "Everyone says, 'Well, I don't have time; that's not my job.'"
In which case you'll end up with a blog where a week goes by without a new post. By the same token, someone needs to be in charge of answering customers.
5. Will social media duties be factored into somebody's job evaluation?
Companies need to hold an individual accountable if criticism escalates on Facebook or Twitter and nobody gets around to answering it.
Somebody needs to be told, "If you haven't responded in half an hour, and if this is your job and you raised your hand for it, then we're going to count this against you at some point," Barger says.
6. Are you prepared to move quickly?
Determine who is inside your rapid-response circle, and who will reply online so you don't look foolish if there's a flare-up.
If a crisis is breaking and you're being battered, you don't have days to tinker with the official wording and seek out the thoughts of everyone from here to Bangalore.
"You've got minutes or an hour at most-often even less than that," Barger says. "Knowing that something is happening is half the battle, but then being able to move quickly and do something about it is the other half."
7. Do the lawyers realize that you need a quick response?
The best way to handle a crisis is to be prepared for it long beforehand, Barger says.
That means Legal understands that "if I get a note from this person saying it's urgent, I really do have 20 minutes to look over the response before it has to go up."
8. Have you brought in the franchises?
Customers generally don't encounter a company at its glass tower downtown or corporate campus in the suburbs. It's out on the street level that the interaction takes place.
"Most people don't have a relationship with Domino's through corporate headquarters in Ann Arbor, they have it through remote," Barger says. "Most people, when they're looking to buy a car, don't necessarily have a relationship with General Motors Co. in Detroit. They've got it with whoever the dealer is in their local area."
Russell Working is a reporter for Ragan.com.