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Thomas Fox is president of Tech Experts, southeast Michigan’s leading small business computer support company.[/caption]Your company’s online reputation is one of your most valuable assets. A good reputation instills confidence in clients and prospects, and gives you the upper hand when competing for business.In large part, social media has taken the control of a company’s brand and placed it in the hands of the consumer. It doesn’t matter how you define your brand, it all comes down to what your audience says.One negative comment on a social networking site can spread like wildfire. To help prevent that, here are five tips on managing your company’s social media and online reputation.Set up e-mail alertsAn e-mail alert will send you links to any new web activity around a keyword or search phrase. Use variations of your company’s name and the names of key employees. While alerts won’t show you everything on the web about your company, it provides an excellent daily snapshot.Keep an eye on industry forumsDiscussion forums are a combination of blogging and social networking. If there are forum sites for companies in your industry, they bear close monitoring. They are a breeding ground for oftentimes anonymous and unfounded consumer complaints.Consumers will often turn to a forum when they have troubleshooting questions about a product. They are looking to their peers for the solution to their problem.By becoming an active member of the popular forums in your industry, you’ll be able to directly respond to customer questions or complaints, building a stronger reputation and customer service program in the process.Social media silence = deathIf you find your company on the defense, make sure you respond quickly and efficiently. Companies no longer have the luxury of waiting a week, a day, or even a few hours to issue a press release to tell their side of the story.When bad news breaks, respond quickly. Social media is all about instant connections, so clients have little patience for a company that takes their time responding to a bad situation.Build strong relationships with industry leadersAlmost every industry has a blog (or blogs) dedicated to it. Popular and well respected bloggers have quite a bit of power when it comes to a business’s online reputation. A popular blog reaches thousands of people a day, so what they say has a far-reaching effect. Having a popular blog author on your side means you have their unspoken endorsement.It also means that you have a strong support network if someone starts attacking your company online. Having a community of industry leaders on your side is a great way to defend your company’s online reputation.Keep communication lines openOne of the easiest ways to hurt your online reputation is to shut yourself off from clients and prospects. If you don’t allow them to communicate with you (for better AND for worse), you are removing yourself from the conversation.Encourage your customers to write online reviews about your company. Thank the ones who write a good review, and definitely reach out to the ones who weren’t as positive.Customers are the lifeblood of any business, and communicating with them quickly and honestly will build a strong and positive online reputation.The best way to manage your online reputation? Be proactive. Invest the time to build a solid social media reputation and before you need to defend your company from attacks or criticism.