What does a company do if unhappy customers start to reach for their "twitchforks" (twitter + pitchforks) worldwide? In social media, wise companies will follow some of the same best practices used in person.

Shortly after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Microsoft tweeted the following message from its Bing Twitter account: “How you can #SupportJapan? For every retweet, @Bing will give $1 to Japan quake victims, up to $100K.”

The response from the Twitter public was not at all what Microsoft intended. An angry mob pounced and accused the software giant of attempting to profit from a tragedy. Microsoft mitigated damages the same day with an apology tweet, “We apologize the tweet was negatively perceived. Intent was to provide an easy way for people to help Japan. We have donated $100K.”

Since that episode, Microsoft has committed $2 million to relief efforts in Japan.

In days gone by, a happy customer might tell only a few people about a good experience, while an unhappy customer might tell 10 people or more. Social media amplifies customer voices to the point where one or two unhappy people can quickly erupt into an angry, global, Twitter-raging mob of hundreds or thousands.

Twitter mobs have formed to protect causes like the Japan relief effort mentioned above, the Egyptian revolution and efforts to save the whales. Other virtual mobs have risen up to indignantly protect individuals like actor Stephen Fry or rapper 50 Cent.

For-profit businesses have also benefited from the rage that follows the perceived injustice of intellectual property infringement. In one case, the virtual mob came to the defense of an author whose work had been blatantly plagiarized by a small online magazine. The response was so strong that the magazine website soon shut down.

In the case of the online bank, the company’s logo and website were blatantly copied by a Romanian company called TrustyPig. With little ability to take legal action against a company in Romania, SmartyPig’s only hope was an angry Twitter mob. In this case, the mob not only tweeted, but also organized to hijack TrustyPig’s brand and thus flaunt the company’s misdeeds. Within two days of the mob’s brand hijack, unflattering headlines like “TrustyPig steals web design from SmartyPig” were showing up near the top of Google search results, TrustyPig changed its Web design and the Twitter mob declared victory.

The fast, free flow of electronic information accelerates the spread of both mistakes and corrections. When this rapid information flow is combined with total or relative anonymity and lack of apparent consequences for attackers, businesses and people are ruthlessly attacked online with or without good reason.

So what does a company do if it suddenly finds that unhappy customers start to reach for their “twitchforks?" Do not ignore it. Businesses can learn four lessons from the classic literary work "To Kill a Mockingbird:" be vigilant, act fast, make it personal and be creative.

In a scene where a real, live lynch mob attempted to apprehend a wrongfully accused man, small-town attorney Atticus Finch vigilantly anticipated the group at the door, acted immediately to try to diffuse the mob’s anger and addressed individuals in the mob personally to remove the mob’s perceived cloak of group anonymity. The creativity came when Finch’s children got involved to further diffuse the situation.

Lyra McKee of RepKnight, a UK-based company that develops a tool for managing and monitoring reputations in social media, suggests companies act quickly to make one-on-one conversations. She gives the following example Twitter exchange:

“@Customer: So angry about #OrganizationB’s service, absolutely disgraceful v(very) -- bad experience with them this week."

“@OrganizationB: So sorry to hear that! Can you follow me so I can DM (direct message) you please?”

“What you tend to find is that customers don’t expect to be listened to when they vent about a company on social media,” McKee said. “The reason they’re venting is because they feel as if they weren’t listened to in the first place. So this response is usually greeted with pleasant surprise. More often than not, it turns the customer into an evangelist for the organization in question.”

A recent Twitter blunder and quick recovery by the Red Cross also illustrates that it helps to quickly admit mistakes and use humor when appropriate. After one employee accidentally used the official @RedCross Twitter account to say, “Ryan found two more 4-bottle packs of Dogfish Head's Midas Touch beer…when we drink we do it right #Gettngslizzerd,” the employee admitted the mistake, and the Red Cross followed up in the middle of the night to tweet, “We've deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we've confiscated the keys.”

Another creative recovery idea comes from Netherlands-based marketing consultant Bastiaan van de Werk. When the company Carglass faced a Twitter mob repeating “#Carglasszuigt” (literally meaning, Carglass sucks) van de Werk boldly suggested that Carglass come out and admit that the company really sucks.

“Publicly admit that you suck and simply offer to vacuum the cars of customers who come by their shop and have their windows repaired or replaced for free!” explains van de Werk. “Either #Carglasszuigt dies a quick death or it becomes the kind of promotional stunt that will keep people talking for a while.”

Would these same tips also help to handle a virtual Twitter mob at a live event? A recent marketing conference I attended was a perfect recipe for such a disaster. From the start, organizers encouraged attendees to tweet incessantly using the conference hashtag so all tweets related to the event would be very visible and spark conversation.

Morning and afternoon presentations on social media and other marketing topics were excellent and set expectations high. Then, in the evening, attendees were given free drinks and gathered into a room with a disastrous keynote speaker.

I will not bore you with the details, but the speaker’s tone and content were absolutely not what the attendees or conference organizers expected. I admit I struggle to recall ever seeing a presentation even half as awkward. Instead of walking out, many attendees held a virtual roast of the speaker via Twitter and tried to hold back laughter at the scathing comments. Thankfully, the speaker’s colleagues saw the Twitterfeed and gestured to cut the presentation short about halfway through.

Aside from cutting the speech short, the speaker did nothing to pacify the angry Twitter mob. However, conference organizers recovered rather admirably by following most of the tips mentioned previously. They vigilantly identified the problem during the beginning of the speech, tried to save the presentation by posing helpful questions to steer the speaker, and then helped cut it short when all else failed. The organization could have acted faster with an explicit apology, but it did provide a somewhat humorous apology the next day and ended up treating the situation as a bit of a marketing case study in a subsequent presentation.

To diffuse live angry crowds or virtual, worldwide Twitter mobs, remember the following steps: be vigilant, act fast, make it personal, be creative and, when appropriate, admit mistakes and use humor. Causing offense is all too easy, but remedying it is often as simple as a quick and sincere apology.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: [email protected] . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..