As the election campaign creaks into action, the major political parties are undoubtedly looking to social media to help keep supporters on side and influence the waverers. So what can brands learn from the politicians when it comes to shaping their PR presence online? The pundits may remain unconvinced that social media will actually help win votes, but that won’t stop the politicians adding it to their campaign communications armoury as 7 May approaches. And of course, the message here is that the power of social media simply can’t be ignored – it’s now a fully fledged part of the media mix.

Social media helps brands to be present wherever the conversation is taking place – just as it does politicians.  As Stewart Kirkpatrick, head of digital for the Yes campaign in the Scottish independence referendum, told the BBC’s Today programme recently: “The trick is to understand that there isn’t an online audience, there are multiple audiences. You have to be interesting, engaging and relevant to the people you’re trying to reach at the time they see your content.”

But if people use social media chiefly to interact with each other, how do brands become part of the conversation?  Perhaps the biggest challenge for commercial organisations is to stop seeing social as a sales tool and start seeing it as an extension of their public relations programme.  As we all know, PR can inform, educate, enlighten, bolster reputation and, in so doing, empower consumers.  And that, by a delicious coincidence, is also what social media does best.

Used wisely, social media can even help turn a communications threat into an opportunity.  Yet protecting your reputation in real time, while the world watches online, can be daunting, and some brands fight shy of social media precisely because they fear the damage that angry customers could do.

When politicians are caught in less than edifying circumstances, the wisest of them – or those most skilful at reputation management – own up and face their detractors, sometimes even improving their ‘good guy’ rating in the process.  To err is human, after all.  Brands can learn from this approach – the trick is to act decisively: be honest, own the problem and say how you’re going to fix it.  Then be sure you do so.

When it comes to online customer care – whether it’s a negative review on your website or an angry tweet, treat each complainant as an individual and try to get them to be part of the solution. An empowered consumer is an advocate in the making, even when you’ve upset them. By inviting feedback and incorporating useful suggestions into products or services, companies can recruit customers to help create the future of their brand. And nothing bolsters loyalty better than a feeling of personal involvement.

It is no wonder that the best PR practitioners embrace social media – journalists, after all, were early adopters.  No public relations campaign can be fully effective without it, and forward-thinking brands must turn to their PR advisers to help them embrace the very real opportunities it brings.