Seven Tips to Manage the Critics OnlineBy Gini Dietrich

When I speak, I tell the following story quite often. I tell it so often, in fact, I’ve heard rumors that other speakers tell it, too.

In 2008, I was flying to Denver to speak to two CEO groups for Vistage International. It was the week before the Memorial Day weekend and we’d planned to meet our friends, after my work was complete, in Beaver Creek for the long weekend. I had rented a car for Wednesday through the following Monday.

I “grew up” in a global PR firm where the car rental company of choice was Avis. Because I’ve traveled at least once a week for most of my career, I was part of their Princess Platinum club (I made that up—it was whichever club is their highest).

That status traveled with me after I left the PR firm and started my own business, and I kept it because I continued that kind of travel schedule.

I had no reason to leave them and I was treated very well.

Avis on Twitter, but Not Listening

For this trip to Denver, the Vistage speaking coordinator called to see if I could add a day on the front end of the trip to speak to one more group. Not a problem on my end, and we called Avis to have them add to the reservation.

We were told they were out of cars and I’d have to find one for that first day somewhere else.

Politely explaining I was in their Princess Platinum Club, we asked if they could send a car from another location.

The customer service rep said they had a car at another location, but that I would have to “take a cab” to get there.

At this point, it was very early in the world of Twitter, but being an avid user, I went online to see if they had an account there.

Guess what?

They did!

Their Twitter handle is (or was at the time; the account is now suspended) @wetryharder.

So I tweeted:

@wetryharder Having a problem extending an existing reservation in Denver. Can you help?”

Hertz to the Rescue!

Crickets. Nothing. Not a peep. But a few minutes later, Hertz tweeted me.

They said:

So sorry to hear about our competition. We can help!

They helped me get a car for my entire trip, gave me the same status I had at Avis, and sent me on my merry way.

About a week after I got home, Hertz tweeted me and asked how the trip was, how the car was, if customer service was helpful—they were gathering market research.

Then they said if I rented from them again, they would give me their Gold status for free.

I did and I haven’t gone back to Avis since then.

This was in May of 2008. In September of that same year, I received a letter in the mail from Avis asking what it would take to get my business back.

Four months had gone by before they realized someone who typically rented at least one car a week from them was gone.

The original tweet went unanswered.

Hertz was monitoring the social networks and Avis was not. They weren’t even monitoring their own handle. And they lost a loyal customer because of it.

Social Media is Scary

I tell this story because participating online is very scary to many, many business leaders.

They’re fearful if they spend the time and resources to open their organizations to their customers and prospects, the critics will come out of the woodwork and they’ll have a crisis on their hands.

When, in fact, the opposite is quite true.

The critics are already there. They have a voice. They are using the social networks to talk about you. Now you have the opportunity to not only listen, but to respond.

Sometimes all we want is to be heard.

Manage the Critics Online

Following are seven tips for managing the critics online.

Create an internal policy. Everyone on your team—both internally and externally—needs to understand what your policy is for managing critics 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, what they’ll say, how quickly they’ll respond, and what to do if someone not authorized to comment sees or receives a comment.

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 or see body language. Don’t get defensive or engage in a back-and-forth debate online.

Assume the best. Even if you think the answer is obvious or right in front of their face, sometimes the critic is misinformed, 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.

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 and the message of the critic. If it’s directly on your blog or on Facebook, it’s far more difficult to ignore than in a tweet.

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 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 and the critics sulk away.

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 to be showered with pre-approved PR messages. Be understanding, listen, and make things right. Don’t act like a robot that can only repeat one or two messages. Use common sense when responding. Ask yourself if the critics have real complaints or they’re someone just harassing you. If it’s the former, be patient and give the person time to vent their frustrations.

Have a written external policy. The policy should describe when you will delete comments or ban critics, 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. We once had a troll who copied and pasted his rude comment to the top of the stream every time the community pushed it down. He had been responded to, so we told him that if he continued to do that, his comments would be deleted and he would be banned. He stopped doing it. 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.

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

This is an excerpt from chapter 4 of the newly released, Spin Sucks. If you buy your copy this week and email me your receipt, I’ll send you $200 worth of free content, including webinars by both Marcus Sheridan and Andy Crestodina.

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.

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