Dealing with CriticsBy Gini Dietrich

A company of 70 assisted-living and retirement homes in the Midwest hired us a few years ago to see if social media could help them communicate with the children of their residents. 

Through our research, we discovered a Wii had been installed in every common living area throughout the entire organization…and residents were playing games on the consoles.

When tasked with the idea of using social media to engage the resident’s children, we knew we had to find a way to showcase these Wii competitions and see if we could extend them beyond each community.

Coming up on March Madness, we suggested they create the NCAA of Wii players and have the residents compete with one another.

As they played, it was recorded in real time and uploaded to the community’s website and through Facebook.

Then friends, families, and other residents could vote on the winner for each specific community. Just like in college basketball, each team could advance on and eventually face off in a “national” championship.

It was a lot of fun and people really got into it—sharing the videos, asking for votes, and suggesting games to play. And, let’s be real, retired people playing Wii is pretty fantastic.

When Critics Attack

One week, in the middle of all of this, the CEO and I were traveling to a conference together.

The night before it began, we were in the hotel bar chatting about work and he asked to see this creation of ours. I pulled out my laptop, opened Facebook, and scrolled through the different pages to show him how active and engaged his communities were in this contest.

As we were scrolling through, someone posted on the page a very scathing comment. It was unprofessional, it was mean, and it used a lot of swear words.

The woman was the daughter of a resident and she was angry after receiving a call from her mother, who was extremely upset about her visit to the beautician that day. Apparently she’d had her hair colored and it turned blue. 

The CEO backed away from the computer and put his hands up as if it were on fire.

We talked about what to do and then he timidly put his hands on the keyboard and typed,

I’m the CEO and I just saw this. Would you mind sending me your phone number so I can call you?

The woman did so and he took out his cell phone and called her. Right then and there.

He learned this wasn’t the first time her mother’s hair had been turned blue by the hairdresser and the salon refused to do anything about it. She was upset at their lack of empathy and customer service. He let her vent for a good 10 minutes and then offered her mom three free salon visits. He also called the salon manager and had a talk with her to be sure that never happened again.

The woman was so pleased with his responsiveness, she went back to the Facebook page and posted about it. Today she is one of the company’s biggest fans.

Turn Critics into Fans

Of course, it’s not always going to be the most senior person in the organization responding to the critics, but it isn’t hard to turn a critic into a fan if you apologize and fix the situation.

When this happens to you—and it will happen to you so don’t bury your head and pretend no one will ever be unhappy enough to post publicly about you—there is a four-step process you should employ.

  1. Get to the bottom of the initial complaint. Sometimes the critics might be right. If they are right and not complaining just to complain, listening to what they have to say will lead to identifying and solving an issue before it grows too large or gets out of hand.
  2. Consider the source. On the other hand, if the person is there only to cause trouble, you can ignore them. Responding will only add fuel to the fire, which is what these people feed on. Rather than calling them critics, we consider them trolls. Most of you will know who your trolls are because they show up consistently and try to take you down. All of our clients have a list of people they should ignore. Consider it your mental black list.
  3. Weigh the influence of the person. If the critic isn’t on your black list and you’re not sure of their complaint, consider how much influence they have within your industry. While you don’t want to be disrespectful of anyone complaining, you can definitely prioritize responses based on the person’s influence.
  4. Reply and then listen. If the complaint is valid, you should reply to the person—publicly—and then ask them to provide their contact information through a private message. Replying publicly allows other people to see you’re handling the situation, and then you can take the conversation offline. In the very best case, the person will post publicly again after the situation is solved, as happened with my friend.

Seven Steps to Dealing with Critics

Most of you have sites, communities, and content that increases your brand awareness, helps you position yourself in your market, and generates new leads.

But there will be occasions when people will want to tear you down. Sometimes those people will be anonymous—in those cases, you can decide to ignore them.

In other cases, they’ll be people you already know—they may have vocally complained about you in the past, or they may be a friend turned foe.

Whoever it is, it’s important to be strategic about dealing with criticism. The following seven steps will help.

  1. Create an internal policy. Everyone on your team—both internally and externally—needs to understand what your policy is for managing criticism online. A bad situation can be made worse by a well-intentioned employee or external partner who doesn’t understand your policy. The policy should lay out who will respond to critics online, what they’ll say, how quickly they’ll respond, and what to do if someone not authorized to comment sees or receives a comment.
  2. Be cautious. When dealing with critics, particularly if they’re anonymous, you don’t know how severe the reaction could be or how successful they may be in creating an online crisis involving hundreds or thousands of others. A good rule of thumb is to publicly say you hear them and you’d like to discuss offline. Then take it to the phone or in person. Get it out of writing so you can hear the tone of voice and see body language. The last thing you want to do is get defensive or engage in a back-and-forth debate online.
  3. Assume the best. Even if you think the answer is obvious or right in front of their face, sometimes the critic is misinformed, or doesn’t know where to look for the information on your site, or may be unwilling to search. When they complain about the obvious things, be helpful, pleasant, and non-defensive. You should never assume malicious intent until you’ve covered the obvious.
  4. Consider the medium. Unless you run a sports, religious, or news site, it’s unlikely anonymous trolls will want to spend their every waking moment criticizing you. So keep your goals in mind. Consider the medium of the criticism. If it’s directly on your blog or on Facebook, it’s far more difficult to ignore than in a tweet.
  5. Deleting posts. While deleting posts may remove the damage for the time being, when people discover you’re doing so, they’ll take you to task for that… and it won’t be pretty. Consider a politician who lies about his affair. Soon enough we all find out; cue news conference, with (or without) his family standing next to him, to admit the affair he lied about for months. It’s far worse to be found out later than to attempt to ignore it to begin with. And, when you’re transparent about your blemishes, an amazing thing happens: your community comes to your defense.
  6. Use common sense. Take your corporate hat off and think like a human being. No one wants to be talked to in corporate jargon or be showered with pre-approved PR messages. Be understanding, listen, and make things right. 
  7. Have a written external policy. The policy should describe when you will delete comments or ban a commenter, and establishes the tone of the conversation allowed on the site. For instance, the policy at Spin Sucks is that you can’t swear (we’ll edit out the swear words if you do) and the discourse must be professional. The written policy helps you moderate the conversation in a professional but open way.

It’s a very uncomfortable position to be in. None of us want to be criticized or have critics.

But, as the saying goes, if people either love you or hate you, you’re doing something right.

Today’s Exercise

Set your timer for 30 minutes and pull out a piece of paper—either in a notebook or on your computer.

Now you are going to create drafts of your internal and external policies for dealing with critics.

If you already have policies, that’s great! You’re far ahead of the competition. In that case, you’ll review them both and revise and update them.

If you don’t already have them, spend 15 minutes jotting down things that will go in your internal policy and 15 minutes on your external policy.

Of course, you’ll have to revise and finalize these—and get them approved, in most cases, but this will give you a good start.

Set your timer and go!

The Scavenger Hunt

If you are participating in the Spin Sucks scavenger hunt, today you will visit Jon-Mikel Bailey’s blog.

The secret word is in his blog post, “Good Branding, UX, and Content Marketing Start with Your Story.”

Just write down the secret word in Jon’s box on your scavenger hunt card (if you don’t have a card, download it here).

We have through March 3, so keep playing along.

And don’t forget…if you buy a copy of Spin Sucks between now and March 8, we’ll send you a fun package full of goodies to use in your office.

Just email the receipt to [email protected]. Please include your mailing address so we know where to send the package.

Now get to work! Thirty minutes. Go!

image credit: Shutterstock

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