Public relations disasters happen all the time, and come from all industries, but some will go down in infamy. Fortunately for businesses and public figures that haven’t been in the middle of a social media PR disaster, you can learn from those that have.

The first step to avoiding these types of disasters is understanding how they occur so you can limit the potential that they’ll happen to you. Here are five social media PR disasters you can learn from. Use these examples to develop a social media PR disaster recovery plan so you’re prepared in the event you find yourself in a negative spotlight.

1. United Airlines Tries to Ignore the Conversation:

In 2008, professional musician Dave Carroll sat in a plane on the tarmac preparing to leave Chicago O’Hare Airport when his fellow passengers noticed the baggage handlers roughly throwing their luggage, including Carroll’s $3,500 Taylor guitar. When he landed, his guitar was returned to him, but it was destroyed. Carroll spent the next year fighting with United Airlines to get compensation for his guitar.

Eventually, he turned to YouTube and uploaded a series of videos called “United Breaks Guitars” that told his story in a humorous manner. At this point, he asked only for the company to admit its wrong-doing. The videos went viral, and ultimately, United Airlines apologized and donated $3,000 to the Thelonious Monk Jazz Institute per Carroll’s request.

2. Domino’s Pizza Employees Gone Wild:

In 2009, two North Carolina Domino’s franchise employees filmed a video of themselves doing some really disgusting things to food that was most likely later served to customers. They uploaded the video to YouTube, and within a few days, the video had over one million views. Domino’s responded by firing the employees, but the brand’s image had already been tarnished.

3. Dell Tries to Stop the Conversation:

In 2007, a former Dell kiosk employee sent a list of 22 confessions to which outlined various tactics Dell employees are trained to use to get bigger sales from customers. Dell responded by emailing Consumerist and demanding that the blog article which listed the confessions be removed. Consumerist responded by publishing the Dell email on its blog, too.

As you can imagine, Dell was not happy and followed up with a cease and desist email from the company’s legal department threatening legal action if the blog post was not removed. Consumerist again responded by publishing that communication on its blog. Within a few days, the story had gone viral. This time, Dell wrote its own blog article which included “Dell’s 23 confessions” and began with the simple admission, “We blew it.”

4. Chrysler Gives up Control:

In 2011, an employee working for Chrysler’s social media agency, New Media Strategies, tweeted an update to the @ChryslerAutos Twitter account that outraged consumers and Chrysler. The tweet said, “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f#*!ing drive.” Chrysler responded quickly by deleting the tweet and did not renew its contract with New Media Strategies. The employee who wrote the tweet was fired.

5. Belkin Tries to Have Too Much Control:

In 2009, college student Alan Parsa stumbled upon a task from Belkin listed on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (where people can publish tasks for others to complete in return for compensation).

The task required people to write reviews for specific Belkin products, but each review had to be written as though the person writing it actually owned and used the product (even if he or she did not). Furthermore, the product had to be given a 100 percent rating (the highest possible). As if that wasn’t unethical enough, the task also required people to find negative reviews of the product and mark them as  not helpful. The pay was $0.65 per review.

When Parsa read the requirements for the task, he didn’t think it was right, so he decided to publish a post about it on his personal blog. He included a screenshot of the task, and the story spread online incredibly quickly. Belkin issued an apology, but only after consumers began a Belkin boycott.

How to Avoid Social Media PR Disasters

Avoiding social media PR disasters comes down to a few important rules you need to follow. First, be honest in your online communications and activities. As Belkin learned, dishonesty will be discovered and does more harm than good.

Second, hire the right people to help you. If you work with a company that provides social media services, make sure you know the specific individuals who will handle your tasks on a daily basis, including their experience and track record as well as how their performance will be managed. Let Chrysler’s social media PR disaster be a warning to you.

Third, create guidelines for your social media team to follow and provide training and feedback so they understand what they can and cannot do. Give them the flexibility they need to be human and build relationships, but don’t drop them in the water without a map and paddle.

Most importantly, monitor your online reputation continually. You need to know what’s being said about both your brand and business, so you can react immediately when it’s necessary to do so. When a social media PR disaster does occur, act quickly and be transparent in your response.

[Image credits: The World According To Marty, Geoff Livingston, The U.S. Army]