Crisis CommunicationsBy Gini Dietrich

When I speak, particularly to business owners, someone inevitably asks, “Let’s say I start using the web to grow my business. What do I do if someone says something negative about us online?”

My answer is always that it’s likely going to happen because if customers say something negative about you online, they likely are already saying it offline.

You now have the huge opportunity to hear what people are saying…and fix the issues before you lose a customer or 10 or 100.

A good majority of business owners take criticism to heart and fix their operations to deal with it.

Others, however, aren’t so willing. Call it pride or ego or narcissism. Whatever the issue, it can cause not only a mass exodus of customers, but a social media firestorm.

Customers Fined for Negative Reviews

Enter Union Street Guest House.

A few days ago, The New York Post ran a short piece—on Page Six, of all places—about a hotel in Hudson, N.Y. that fines guests for negative reviews posted online.

If a couple uses the Union Street Guest House as either the location for their wedding or an overnight option for their wedding guests, the hotel requires a deposit…which they don’t return until the rooms are in order, there is no damage, and they’ve assured no one associated with the wedding party has left a negative review.

If a negative review is left, the bride and groom are fined $500, which is deducted from their deposit. Have five unhappy guests? That’s 2,500 smackers.

From the hotel’s website:

If you have booked the Inn for a wedding or other type of event anywhere in the region and given us a deposit of any kind for guests to stay at USGH there will be a $500 fine that will be deducted from your deposit for every negative review of USGH placed on any Internet site by anyone in your party and/or attending your wedding or event. If you stay here to attend a wedding anywhere in the area and leave us a negative review on any Internet site you agree to a $500 fine for each negative review.

The good news is, if you delete your negative review, the $500 will be refunded.

When the pitchforks and torches came out, people from around the world flooded their Facebook page.

The owner posted this (which has since been deleted):

The policy regarding wedding fines was put on our site as a tongue-in-cheek response to a wedding many years ago. It was meant to be taken down long ago and certainly was never enforced.

The problem, of course, is their Yelp page is full of people quoting email threats they’d received (before this story broke). It’s a joke that isn’t really a joke.

Union Street Guest House Yelp Review

Today a new statement is up. The owner offers 10 percent discount to anyone who mentions his apology letter when they book their hotel room.

Crisis Communications 101

If you’re reading all of the Spin Sucks posts this week, you’ve probably gleaned we’re focused on crisis communications this month.

In fact, our webinar later today with Melissa Agnes has a nine-step process you can take to create a crisis communications plan so you’re ready if something like this happens to you.

There also are plenty of case studies across the web—and in Spin Sucks, the book—that talk about how to manage an issue gone viral.

Because of that, organizations really have no excuse when caught off-guard like this.

To say you’re “a novice when it comes to the Internet and digital communication and your background is in music and hospitality” is an excuse.

At the very least, “I’m sorry” goes a really long way while you get your ducks in a row.

Five Things to Always Remember in a Crisis

To that end, here is what you can learn from Union Street Guest House.

  1. Say I’m sorry. Not I’m sorry, but your feelings are inadequate. Just I’m sorry.
  2. Figure out next steps. You have to figure out what you’re going to do. If your policy is to fine your guests for a negative review, are you going to stand your ground or are you going to change the way you do business?
  3. Communicate your stance. Ideally, you’ll want to have changed the way you do business, but there may very well be a strategic reason you have the policy you have. Communicate that and don’t back down. You can’t make everyone happy all of the time, but you can certainly make some people happy if your operations are sound.
  4. Fix what is broken. You ethically can’t fine people for negative reviews. Likewise, you can’t incentivize people for positive reviews. If your operations are broken and your policies create a reason for many customers to be upset, the issue is not social media. The issue is you.
  5. Let the social media mob move on. And they will. We have very short attention spans. It will blow over.

And, by all means, don’t ever threaten your customers and their friends and family, joke or not.

As my dad always told us when we were kids, “Don’t ever put anything in writing you might regret later.”

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

View all posts by Gini Dietrich