How do you respond to a negative comment in an online community,  on Facebook? Shut the Page down, ban the commenter, suck up to them? How about a bitchy tweet on Twitter? Fight with them? Ignore them? Promise to do better? Many social media guidelines have a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to addressing negative criticism in social networks, but assessing the situation and the potential positive vs negative outcomes of responses is a skill that comes from experience. PS:  Your marketing intern may not have that skill!


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Another common question is how to be “authentic, honest, transparent” and human yet corporate-y. Well, every company does it differently, but let’s look at corporate vs personal voice when dealing with negative comments.

1. Ignore the negative social media commenter.

Everyone will eventually get bored and find something else to do. Unless they go off and create an anti-community such as Dell Hell, alert the Press and continue to pursue their point of view. One negative reviewer may disappear OR connect with others.We often use “ignore but monitor” in our communities for issues we know about and have responded to publicly already OR where the member is new, a bit crazy or usually positive but having a bad day. Appearing to ignore can also leave room for more debate to grow which, when managed, is a good thing!

From imaginearea (a poet):

I wrote a poem entitled ‘Teenagers’ a few days ago. It was the first poem I had ever written. I was completely unprepared for some of the negative comments I received.

I am not against negative comments but abusive negative comments can feel really painful.

After getting over my initial shock I realised that these comments were actually doing me a favour…they created a heated debate between those who loved my poem and those who didn’t…this led to much more traffic to my article than I would have got if all the comments were positive.

In short, I know I must develop a thick skin to protect me from the abusive comments but I must also see all comments as much needed PUBLICITY for my work. (successful blog)

I’m not convinced that the social media equivalent of “any publicity is good publicity” works, but it certainly makes you known. For better or worse.

2. Lawyer Up!

Sue them, or at least threaten to sue them. Send out letters to tell them you MIGHT sue them if they don’t remove the item. Sometimes it works such as when Volkswagen told some YouTubers to remove the VW logo and colours from a video, other times it can blow up a large online community e.g.  threatening to sue on behalf of 2Clix (2Clix Sucks?). Something bad that had only a few views suddenly jumps to millions when you tell the online community Digg to remove information (The Hole That Digg Dug). Law as bullying tactic rarely works, it just incenses the community. But using the Law when someone is out of control can be pursued when nothing else works. Though to be honest the crazies in my communities over the years rarely listen even to cease and desist orders.

3. Deflect to a more positive discussion

This one is recommended a lot by social media “experts” – thank the commenter, ask for more information and then bury them in talking. If there is more than one negative reviewer, try the “thankyou – oh look something shiny!” approach. In one case our community that had been quiet were suddenly up in arms about the change of a logo (yep seriously, in an online game). We realised they were bored. So we ran (in the virtual world) an Olympics for them and they shut up about the logo change. Try saying “thankyou – and here’s a competition for you”. It won’t fix their ‘problem’ but if their problem was boredom or just community induced psychosis, a campaign, game or competition will cheer their little souls up mightily. 😛 But be warned, when Marketing are put in charge of social media, rather than customer service, people figure out very quickly that all they will get back is chatter, not fixes.

4. Remove the comment, Ban the commenter

Remove the comment, remove the commenter, remove the responses to the commenter. Ignore any site you don’t have control over and come down hard on the ones you do have control over. This one works suprisingly well over the “me-too” commenters who settle down quickly. But it’s not going to last forever. A good backup is to remove the comments from say, the Facebook page and the note in the sidebar and in the comments every so often “the official channel” for reporting issues and concerns. Really depends on your community if this will work  – and the timeliness of your removal of issues, and the strength of your moderators. Just remember, the community trusts the moderators to keep a social network (like a Facebook Page) safe and relatively free of nastiness – it’s actually your duty to remove really bad comments and commenters. Freedom of speech belongs on their own page, not yours! We are also judged by the company we keep – “social” media does not have to mean “friends to all”. Feel free to filter out – block or ban – those who do not share the value systems of the community.

5. Educate the disgruntled customer

This can sit under Corporate voice or Human voice.  Use every negative comment as an opportunity to educate.  When you see someone tweeting how a your product failed them, on Twitter, respond on your blog with news of the upgrade, a workaround or information on how to improve the issue. You don’t have to refer to the Twitterer in the article, if you think it will inflame the commenters more, but certainly respond with educational material. And sometimes the customer is just plain wrong – misunderstood, didn’t install properly, didnt’ read the instructions. Educate one, usually means educating many in social networks online.  Many a negative comment is a cry for help – telling them how to fix the problem will sometimes kick back a positive review to follow the negative one. I see this a lot on iTunes – edited reviews with a fix for the problem.

6. Confess All and Beg Forgiveness

There is a temptation to use this one a lot, especially by social media newbies. I’m not sure why the need to say “sorry” to consumers who are ignorant, wrong, rude, and bullsh*tting comes from, unless it’s the out of date mandate of “the customer is always right”. Or fear that the customer could do a better job of antimarketing the brand than the marketing department can do of marketing the brand. Or just that good old fashoned “OMG someone doesn’t like me/us”. I think it’s dangerous to overuse Confession and Beg Forgiveness – unless you really screwed up bigtime e.g. BP Oil Spill, Exxon, and so on. Remember if your values are a little offbeat such as Cotton On (baby shaker t-shirt) then you will get heatedly discussed about online – change your values or use one of the other options to deal with negative comments. Timely apologies for delays and a good explanation and asking for patience is fine. Thanking the community for their input and a promise to get back to them (and do it!) is great.  But do not go overboard with confession/begging – communities sense weakness and often intensify the debate to see more grovelling, while capturing the moral high ground.

7. Stand up and Fight

Consumers, as much as companies are not ready for the shift to engagement. Shouting out loudly about bad service can sometimes bring about a response from the company who equally loudly names and shames the customer. When two blondes claimed they were denied service on an American airline, that airline took to YouTube to point out it was not because the blondes were “prettier than the cabin crew” as claimed, but because they acted up. This one is easier for small companies who are passionate about their products and services and have no compunction to come out swinging if denigrated online, but harder for big companies to do.

This may end up being the most important response you can make to World War Three breaking out online – as groups with different value systems move into each others ‘ circles, our politically correct lives are about to be turned upside down. But it’s necessary – lack of debate leads to stagnation. Prepare to take on your customer, do not apologise for normal business practices and defend yourselves. Your company may just depend on strong leaders online, as the coming generations take note of corporate karma they will be observing that “those who stand for nothing, fall for anything”. PS Nestle social media admins criticising activists on their Facebook page for poor grammar and spelling is not what I mean!

8. Own It and Wear It.

Some of the best responses to online criticism I have seen have been to “own it”. Charlie Sheen is a master of turning a negative into humour. When Foursquare users were being called “douchebags” for updating their Facebook and Twitter status with their location, Foursquare brought out a much sought-after badge called… you guessed it… the Douchebag badge.

I wonder if banks will create a Skinflint Miser badge or if you can earn a Road Hog badge from the Department of Motor Vehicles? Heh probably not. But Harley Davison have “owned” badass for years, turning a negative brand image into a must have attitude. Humour and a strong sense of the brand identity can turn a negative into a positive.

What else? Have you seen a situation where the brand responded or did not respond to criticism? Did it work?

The next time you hear someone say: oh you should always do xyz when you see criticism online, you know that there are other options. At least 8 of ’em, maybe more.  Some work better than others, depending on the situation. I can assess a situation pretty quickly online – and know whether to leave it, or response, or fight, or play it down or deflect or use humour. I’m rarely surprised anymore except from time to time how positive and supportive people can be after a huge row online. The quiet ones speak up when the dust has settled and often act as the voice of reason after what was an unreasonable time. And that’s a great surprise to have!