Sarah Needleman reports in Monday’s Wall Street Journal that big businesses are finding it critical to monitor social media as part of their public relations efforts.

A growing number of businesses are tracking social-media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter to gauge consumer sentiment and avert potential public-relations problems.

Ford Motor Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co., among others, are deploying software and assigning employees to monitor Internet postings and blogs. They’re also assigning senior leaders to craft corporate strategies for social media.

Shouldn’t law firms being doing the same for matters about their firm and the matters in which their firm is representing clients? In this day and age when it’s so easy to set up a dashboard via RSS feeds monitoring names, subjects, and sources it borders on negligence for law firms not to be doing so.

Not only do law firms need to monitor the likes of Facebook and Twitter, law firms need to respond quickly. Per corporate communications pro, Shel Holtz, “Social media [has] magnified the urgency of crisis communication, seemingly small incidents can quickly spread into bigger PR problems via the Web.”

Scarier yet for law firms is not having all communications go through the law firm’s traditional communication channels. Per Needleman:

Some companies are training staffers to broaden their social-media efforts. At Ford, Mr. Monty plans to soon begin teaching employees how to use sites like Twitter to represent the company and interact with consumers.

Coca-Cola Co. is preparing a similar effort, which initially will be limited to marketing, public affairs and legal staffers. Participants will be authorized to post to social media on Coke’s behalf without checking with the company’s PR staff, says Adam Brown, named Coke’s first head of social media in March.

We’ve already seen how woefully unprepared law firms are for this type of monitoring and rapid response. Embarrassing emails from law firm management leak to blogs or main stream media. Virally passed across the Internet, without any response from the firm via social media, these things take on a life of their own.

I heard from one national law firm communications director that stories spreading across the Internet about senior partners thinking of leaving the firm, whether true or not, all but put the firm on a path leading to its demise.

For lawyers doing litigation, there’s little question news and information about matters in dispute are going to be spread across Twitter and Facebook. A gag order is going do do little to quash discussion effecting the news, your bargaining position, and the views of a fact finder – judge or jury.

No one’s got the perfect answer on how to monitor social media and how to respond yet. All we know is that not monitoring social media is a dangerous proposition and not responding in a timely fashion via the same social media is even more dangerous.