Small business owners know they need to be on social media websites, but they may not be aware of the risk these venues bring for their brand. While it’s nearly impossible to avoid Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, it’s important for business owners to plan for the potential dangers that lurk on these sites.

“Social media gives every business small or big the same opportunity to connect and build up their relationship,” says Melissa Agnes, a social media crisis manager, speaker and consultant. “They may not realize it also gives them the same risk.”

A social media misstep by a large corporation is sure to garner attention, but a slip up by a small business can have the same negative result: a lost customer. Worse, your company’s reputation could be tarnished forever if you don’t handle social media criticism correctly.

In order to create an effective social media risk plan, first think about the risks involved with opening up your business/product to free-flowing comments from customers. Employees also have to be considered. How many people have access to the company’s sites and what they are saying about work on their own online profiles does matter.

“You have to make sure everyone has their own password and that you know who is tweeting,” says Deborah Sweeney CEO of MyCorporation Business Services. While Sweeney doesn’t set too many guidelines about what employees can tweet about, she says the company shies away from controversial topics like politics.

Once the small business is aware of potential risks, it has to figure out how it will manage and respond to customer complaints. While a small business doesn’t want to be extorted into countless freebies because of the threat of complaints, it also can’t ignore legitimate customer issues. Experts say the worst thing a small business can do is dismiss a complaint, even if it’s a small one. You want to make sure no one gets left out.

“If you get 95% right, leaving 5% disenfranchised, it can come back to bite you,” says Dave Carroll, co-founder of Gripevine.com, an online social media platform for consumer-complaint resolution.

Sure small business owners are pressed for time, but in order to prevent a social media complaint from getting out of hand, it’s important to make a concerted effort to monitor what is being said about the company, beyond the Facebook page and Twitter feed. And as important as monitoring is how the small business responds. According to Agnes, never delete a negative comment or pretend it didn’t happen. Social media users are savvy and often quick to point out anything that appears disingenuous.

Small business owners should also view social media as an opportunity to engage with customers and potential customers. If there’s a complaint, use it as an opportunity to explain what happened and make it right. If the complaint comes from Twitter, experts say to respond on Twitter. If it was lodged on your Facebook page, use that medium to correct the situation. Don’t send an email or make a phone call if the customer is communicating via a website platform.

And it may seem elementary, but don’t underestimate the power of saying sorry. 

“Sometimes saying you are sorry is the least expensive solution to your problem,” says Carroll. “If you follow up with action and make it right, it takes away the fight.”