I love the Internet.
As a user I love being able to meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise been connected to and how easily it is to be part of larger conversations. As a business owner, I love having this direct line to the people we’re trying to help and serve. Of course, there are also days when I don’t love the Internet and when the Internet makes me cry.
I’ve written before about some of the dark sides that go into blogging and community management. Because it’s not all rainbows and unicorns out there. There are trolls, and angries, and people with nothing but a grudge and whole lot of free time. And when one of these otherwise nice folks comes for your brand or your head, it can ruin your day. Worse than that, it can lead to an emotional reaction and an online reputation management problem that you’ll have to diffuse later.
You can’t let that happen. And the way to not let it happen is to learn the proper way of responding to negativity about yourself or your brand on the Internet.
Control the situation, control your brand. It’s really that simple.
Consider this your course on how not to get defensive about negative things written about you on the Internet. You can buy me a latte later.
Step 0: Locate Your Big Girl (or Boy) Pants
What sucks about negativity on the Internet is that it can will happen to you. It doesn’t matter how ethical you run your business or nice of a person you are. At some point, someone is going to have a problem with you and they’re going to let you know about it, probably in a not-nice way. Acceptance of this will be your very best friend.
It also makes you an adult.
The simple truth is you don’t have the luxury of being sensitive or having an emotional response when you rely on the Internet to promote your business. Displaying either of these characteristics will, very simply, hurt your business and prevent you from getting where you could. Instead of pouting or being passive aggressive, put on your big person pants and learn how to use it. Sorry, you don’t get another option.
Step 1: Scream. Or Punch Something.
Just because you can’t have an emotional reaction online, doesn’t mean you can’t have one from where you’re sitting. You’re human. You probably even have feelings. When someone takes time out of their day to attack you, it’s going to sting. When this happens, go to a semi-private place and do whatever you have to do release that initial OMG-I’ll-Stab-You adrenaline. Cry. Punch something. Snuggle your dog. Whatever you have to do. But get it out. Once you do, you may return to your computer to deal with the problem at hand.
Step 2: Get the Facts
Now that you’ve had a chance to settle yourself down, break apart the negative comment and start looking at what was really said without the emotion.
- What is the complaint about: Do they refer to a specific incident? Did it happen to them or someone else? Are they repeating something they heard?
- What specifics are cited: Products? People? Places? Times? Events?
- Who is the person making the complaint: Are they in your community? Do they have a (positive) presence elsewhere? What’s important to them? Where do they hang out online?
- What are they really mad about: Bad experience? A bad company response to that experience? Something else?
- Have they complained about this elsewhere? Has anyone else? Is this a new issue or an existing one?
Take as much information as you can from the posting, because even if the tone of the comment was out of line, if you break things down you’ll usually find some truth or lesson hidden within. And that’s what you want to do – get to the root of the problem, and then deal with it.
Step 3: Get Supporting Data
Before you hop right in and respond to your negative friend, get any other supporting information you may need. The worst thing you can do is piss this person off even more by not knowing what you’re talking about when you go to address them.
- Is there any record of what they’re referring to?
- Are you familiar with the product or service they had an issue with?
- Do you understand, as best as you can, why they feel the way they do?
Unfortunately, the answer to all of these questions may be “no”, but collect as much data as you can. If there are others on your team who may know more, ask for their input.
Step 4: Engage the Naysayer…or don’t
Not every negative comment written about you or your brand is going to warrant a response. If someone comments that your service is awful and then five more people comment, calmly, telling the person why they’re wrong, your work is done. Feel free to go get a massage. If in your research you find that this person has a long history of being kind of a douche to brands and that responding only eggs him on more, then let it sit.
However, in many cases, you’re going to want to respond to diffuse the situation. If you are going to respond, you’ll want to:
- Remain calm: If your hands are still shaking or you’re still crying big emo tears over what was said about you, you’re not ready to respond to the situation. Go talk a walk or pass the responsibility off to someone who can handle it. The minute you show anger, defensiveness or emotion in your response, you lose and are immediately discredited.
- Don’t be snarky: Tone is a funny thing online. Some people can read it, some can’t, and some don’t realize that “funny in your head” doesn’t always translate to “funny on the Web”. Do yourself a factor by leaving the snark and humor out of your response and just talk straight. It may not be as amusing but it will save you from shoving your foot further in your mouth. Trust me on this one. I have a Nike logo permanently imprinted on my esophagus.
- Put the facts first: Use all the research you compiled to lay out the facts behind the person’s complaint. Don’t do so in an aggressive or patronizing way, just explain the situation, citing as many specifics and sources as you can. A smack of a reality may calm the person down and, if it doesn’t, it at least shows everyone else watching what happened and that you’re handling it.
- Apologize for anything that’s your fault, nothing else: If the person has a legitimate complaint about something you or your company handled improperly – apologize for it and be sincere. But if you didn’t do anything wrong and there’s nothing to apologize for, don’t just issue the apology for the sake of it. The other party is going to see right through and they’ll call you out on it. Don’t make an ugly situation even uglier. Plus, it’ll make you feel crappy.
- Present a forward-moving action step and take things offline: With the facts laid out and apologies issued, present a forward-moving action step. You’re aware that this happened, now what are you going to do? Let them know that you’re going to follow up with a phone call or an email to take things offline and remedy the situation. Doing this allows you to speak to the person directly (where they’re almost certainly going to be a lot more rational) and it allows you to solve the problem without being watched. Even if you’re just dealing with an angry blog commenter, taking the situation to email can help salvage the sanctity of your comments section.
In most situations it will take just one response from you to diffuse things and get them headed toward a calmer, more productive path. It’s amazing how letting people know that you see them immediately changes the tone of a conversation.
Step 5: Document It
With that situation handled, take some to document it so that you can learn from what happened.
- What was the complaint?
- Is it something you can fix?
- Who was the person who filed it?
- How was it handled? What worked? What didn’t work?
Creating documentation for these types of incidents can help you discover patterns – both in terms of what works and where issues arise in your community. It will also help you identify problem members that you can pass on to the rest of your team in case they encounter them in the future.
Step 6: Let It Go
You’ve learned from it, you’re smarter for it, now let it go. Hanging on to the negativity can only hurt you and your company. In this age of constant-connectedness, you need to be out there. You need to be talking to people. And you can’t do it while still holding on to past grudges and hostility. Know the reason for why you’re engaging online, and keep with it. What you’re doing is important, even if one person decided they didn’t like you that day.
Step 7: Look for Ways To Leverage It
I know. Now you think I’m a bad person, but sometimes there’s a way to use negative press, flame wars and attacks to benefit you in the future. Should you do this immediately and while you’re still in the middle of the problem? No. But when things settle down, don’t discount it.
So someone yelled at you – can you use it as case study on how to handle sensitive situations? Did someone larger than you notice the ruckus? Can it be used to start a relationship with that person and get you a potential guest post? Did the online complaint make you change something in your business? Can you pitch that to the local media and even get the complainer some positive attention for helping generate trend? You may be surprised.
We’re all using the Web to do and deal business. That means we need to be careful about our responses, even when things getting a little emotional. Hopefully the tips above will help you avoid that emotional ORM disaster and, hey, maybe even help you leverage that bad press.