Jessie Frank was having a horrible day. Frank, who was trying to get home to pick up her daughter from a special camp for type 1 diabetic children, had been waylaid by weather, mechanical issues, rerouting and other delays, as a two-hour flight had turned into an all-day slog. Listed as eighth on standby for a flight with no extra seats, a glimmer of hope appeared when a Delta flight attendant waved her down the jetway, only to be stopped at the door. That’s when a mysterious passenger gave up his seat for her. That person turned out to be Richard Anderson, Delta’s CEO, who sat in the jump seat for the trip. Frank was so thankful to see her daughter on the last day of camp, she wrote a letter on Facebook about her experience.

“Thank you, Richard Anderson. As a result of your leadership and the actions of yourself and your employees, I had my special day with my special child,” Frank wrote. “You and your employees gave us both one more day of happiness, and for that, we are both very grateful. I have always been a loyal Delta customer, but Thursday solidified that loyalty for life!”

Her posting was shared thousands of times, and more than 100 news outlets covered the story, including CNN, UPI, Daily Mail and The Huffington Post. Why is this relevant? Because it shows how valuable social media can be in earning traditional media – a fact many companies don’t recognize. If Delta had pitched me a story as a journalist about how its CEO gave up his seat for a passenger, I would have shrugged my shoulders. “So what – it would only be interesting if he didn’t give up his seat,” I would have thought. Yet once the customer has told her version of things, and it started popping up on blogs, twitter and on Facebook pages, then it becomes interesting to the media.

If you hadn’t already noticed, customers are turning to social media to praise good service and air their grievances. They also expect an answer – within an hour. Many companies aren’t sure how to approach these comments – if at all. One study found 70 percent of corporations ignore customer complaints online. This is a huge mistake. There are plenty of examples where turning a blind eye to swelling online gripes can lead to ousters of executives, falling stock prices and unwanted changes in business plans, not to mention bad press.

Here’s a good example – when The Gap changed their logo a few years ago, it drew outrage online from some customers. Now at time, I personally didn’t see what the big deal was – yeah, sure, it looked like a 1990s clip art project, but it didn’t affect my life in some profound way like it seemed to have others. Either way I didn’t see a story in it – logo changes aren’t big business news. Until, that is, the complaints got more traction, more attention and eventually, reporters couldn’t ignore it anymore. I ended up writing two articles about it, along with NPR, CNN and other major outlets around the globe.

Imagine if Coca-Cola Co. could have listened to customers’ thoughts on New Coke in real time, instead of waiting for passionate people to write letters and mail them to the company (hard to fathom nowadays when you can just tweet your thoughts in seconds with no significant time or effort).

What’s even more unfathomable is ignoring those complaints now. Think of the blowback Netflix received for it’s suddenly announced plan to split its DVD and streaming business into two separate entities and charge customers 60 percent more. More than 12,000 people complained on its website, and the move, along with other decisions in 2011 sent shares down from nearly $300 a day before the announcement in July to $65 in November. A year later the Huffington Post was calling the incident “One Of The Great Tech Blunders.”

Not every complaint is at this level or requires drastic action. Many times, people complain about bad customer service or issues not controlled by the company, such as weather or traffic. Sometimes complaints aren’t even about real issues – like when people thought Instagram’s change of service notification meant the company was going to sell everyone’s photos.

Companies should have a plan in place to how they will react to such online situations before they happen. Being paralyzed for hours as lawyers, executives and communications people debate a response will only make matters worse. Journalists waiting for a statement will definitely hear from detractors happy to give interviews, and the longer the lag time, the greater the perception becomes that the company was caught off guard or isn’t competent enough to figure out what they’re doing. Of course, just reacting quickly isn’t enough if the message is bad — see what happened with Geeklist as a prime example.

Small efforts to help or alleviate the problem can turn out positive. An easy response to complaints can simply state: “Sorry to hear about this – let me look into it for you,” and leave an email where the person can contact you directly – and privately. People who receive this type of help often turn into positive commentators online. More than 80 percent of customers who received a response from a company “liked or loved” the fact they were paid attention to, according to a study. Knowing who the main influencers are in the online communities that discuss your company and its products and services can also help quell online storms, if you can reach them quickly and offer them your view.

And sometimes, knowing when to laugh at yourself can be the best reaction. Bodyform’s reply to a guy posting on Facebook that periods aren’t as fun as the company’s ad depicted is hilarious – and won a lot of positive media.

So companies – listen up – don’t ignore what’s being said about you online, because journalists certainly aren’t.