By Greig McCallum is Strategic Managing Partner at balloon dog

Unless you’ve recently landed from Mars, you’ll know that the entire world has become a social media society. Our coalition government seem intent on running the country by tweet, Obama opened his re-election bid with “Are you in?” on #Obama2012 and the extraordinary Arab Spring seems fuelled by Facebook.

For businesses, social media present both wonderful opportunities and grave dangers. US fashion brand Kenneth Cole New York, an enthusiastic adopter of social media, discovered recently that it’s easy to “mis-speak” when you have only 140 characters, leaving little room for nuance or irony.

Mr Cole tweeted, "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo ." Unfortunately he used the #Cairo hashtag, a discussion thread previously used to carry serious reporting of the Egyptian revolution. The Twitterati didn’t much care for the hijacking of this global audience for promotional purposes and Kenneth Cole himself had to apologise quickly for his “insensitive tweet” that he admitted in hindsight was “inappropriate”.

Full marks to Mr Cole for ’fessing up and saying sorry. But what can business managers learn from the episode and still harness the incredible power of the social media universe?

Firstly, while social media may feel casual and throwaway, it’s a dangerous illusion. Once content is posted online it takes on a life of its own. Indeed the way to get huge on social media is to be shared – retweeted or linked to – by users in the digital equivalent of word-of-mouth. When this is positive – Apple are unsurprisingly very good at fuelling buzz – it is a wonderful marketing device. But as the Kenneth Cole example shows, when it goes wrong, it unleashes a ripple of negative comment that is impossible to halt.

Secondly, social media recognises no borders – geographical, social, time, on- or offline. What you say in one part of the town/country/planet reaches the parts other media don’t reach, in the click of a mouse. And what starts online can easily spill into offline press comment. So, think before you press SEND. If your business uses differential pricing, has different positioning across markets or is experiencing “a little local difficulty”, as the Foreign Office used to put it, then it may be better to use more discrete forms of communication.

Thirdly, social media isn’t a part-time job. Your followers tweet and post 24/7. There’s little point in entering the arena if you’re not fully committed to being “always on”. Our client Pret A Manger has passionate followers who literally chat around the clock, around the world. That’s not to say you have to always respond within seconds. But maintaining your Facebook page once a month just won’t cut the ice: it says you’re not serious and don’t understand the medium you’re using.

Fourthly, it’s best if you can restrict your brand feed to a very small, informed and passionate team. Comments from a brand must exemplify the brand values and personality. To do this quickly and consistently is difficult and takes expertise. Also, take care to integrate it with other marketing activity – especially your customer relationship management (CRM) - so that it feels like one voice, one brand, one relationship.

And finally, have fun! Given all these rules and pitfalls, that may sound impossible. But it’s not called social media for nothing: genuinely engaging comments, enthusiasm, points of view and ‘chat’ from your brand can help communicate your values and passions better than a million television viewer ratings (TVRs) if done correctly.

Just watch out for sensitive topic areas and, if in doubt, don’t! Just ask Kenneth Cole.