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Responding to Bad Publicity Online

Posted by: Today's Tip Contributor on August 27, 2010

Every business loves social media marketing when customers are raving about them in Facebook status updates and Twitter tweets, but what happens when there’s some bad press on a social network? How do you handle a potential public blemish without making it into a full-fledged stain? While the downside of social media marketing is that we cannot control what people say about our businesses, we can use these powerful connectors to make things right.

The key is not to engage in a public dialog with the person who is making the negative statement. A he-said-she-said battle in a public forum could exacerbate the situation. You can and should reach out to the person as quickly as possible with a simple "How can we help you?" and then attempt to take the dialog offline.

On Twitter you can use a Direct Message, and on Facebook you can use the Messages feature to communicate privately with disgruntled customers out of the public eye. Or, in your how-can-I-help response, provide a customer support line for the customer to call. (Make sure it’s open and staffed when you’re giving out the number—you don’t want an already unhappy customer dialing two minutes later, only to find out the office is closed.)

Once offline, treat the situation as you would an unhappy customer coming into your store or calling on the phone. More than likely, if you remedy the problem, the once disgruntled and vocal customer will again take to social media to praise your response, potentially turning bad publicity into good publicity.

What about a public response from you directly? Forget it. Instead, let your fans come to your aid. That’s one of the many upsides to social media marketing: Happy customers will provide both word-of-mouth referrals and defend those companies they prefer doing business with. Let these people be your social media knights in shining armor.

Eric Groves
Senior vice-president, global market development
Constant Contact
Waltham, Mass.

Reader Comments


August 27, 2010 10:58 AM

Vocal fans are definitely a company's best defense. Especially when fans outnumber unhappy customers by a wide margin.

A brief story to provide context if you care to read more:

Several years ago, while running an automobile specialty parts business, I experienced two impossible-to-satisfy customers. At the time we were selling limited edition custom hoods for Dodge Ram pickups.

The first unhappy customer, whose expectations were clearly out of line with reality, was approached privately by phone and email after writing a scathing review online without contacting us first to discuss his purchase. He expected his hood to arrive ready-to-paint despite the fact that he was told (and the site explicitly said) the parts would require prep work prior to painting. We happily refunded the cost of the hood and over $200 in shipping costs. Sweet and polite on the phone, he went on to badmouth the company publicly online anyway.

The second customer, a casual online friend of the first, ordered a prepped and painted hood. He installed the hood on his collectible show truck and attended numerous shows. He wrote privately at first to complain about the quality. We wondered why he would install the hood and attend shows with it if he had issues with the quality. Still, we responded and offered the same deal...full refund including shipping. He refused and began to write publicly out-of-context. He wanted to keep the product and get a near-full refund. In my opinion, he wanted his cake and eat it too. We refused since it became clear that he was playing games. Then he attempted to sue us, and later backed off when I proved his claims to be false. He continued to show his truck with our product installed...interesting.

Then, a couple of mutual online friends of both of the above customers, who were customers themselves, jumped on the bandwagon attempting to get partial refunds weeks after they received their hoods. They received partial refunds despite the fact that neither had any warranty issues. We chalked it up to "customer satisfaction".

Despite our efforts, all four continued to badmouth the company every chance they got. Fortunately, we had many dozens of loyal, happy customers come to our defense online.

The moral of the story...even if you go out of your way to make a customer happy, understand that some will be impossible to please and others simply want something for nothing. Don't expect every attempt to satisfy your customers to work in your favor, and don't get disappointed if they continue to be a source of bad publicity. Your loyal happy customers will speak out on your behalf.


August 27, 2010 1:17 PM

I've been working in online communities for more than a dozen years now, and would say that that this is advice is partially correct. It's appropriate some of the times, and not others.

How you respond in public says a LOT about your brand for everyone to see. There's value in that. If I can see that you handle complaints and negative publicity with grace, charm, wit and a sincere desire to resolve the issue, then as an onlooker, I've just gotten a really positive view of your business.

You've let me see that I'm going to be a happy customer if I deal with you.

You also give me the opportunity to become an evangelist by seeing that you've done everything you can for the customer.

If someone brings a problem to you publicly one should *always* respond publicly--even if to tell that person "I will contact you privately".

Doing so lets everyone else know that you're listening and responding.

If there is PII involved, naturally, taking the conversation out of the public realm is called for.

But if you can solve the problem in public, it's better to do so--others who might have the same issue can see what the resolution is, and this might ease some burden on your customer support folks.

There ARE times to take the conversation out of public discussion, but I disagree completely with:

"The key is not to engage in a public dialog with the person who is making the negative statement."

It's called 'transparency'. No one is perfect and we don't expect businesses to be either.

What we DO expect is that when we have an issue, the company will do the right thing to make it better.

Having that conversation out in public is the better choice--LET people see how you deal with problems, and put the solution out there for everyone to see.

It's more efficient, and in a social world, will endear people to your company.

My advice--don't be afraid of negative publicity or complaints. *Embrace* them as an opportunity to satisfy that customer and impress onlookers with the quality of your customer service.


August 27, 2010 2:42 PM

We're currently drafting a flowchart for how to respond to negative comments online, so your post is very timely as I'm trying to absorb a lot of input on this exact question. It's a perilous affair, opening up one's company to the public opinions of masses. But we've learned this transparency is a must in today's economy.

There is one thing I'm wondering though. If a comment containing over-the-line foul language is made on a site we control, like our Facebook page or a company blog post, is it appropriate to delete the comment and re-post the gist of it ourselves without the language, with the offer to contact us directly for further assistance?


August 27, 2010 2:47 PM

This is a great article because I'm not sure many people know how to respond to bad press, especially if it is online. First and foremost, a response is a must. Remember Pizza Hut and Subway a few years ago? Timeliness is key when it comes to responding through social media. Also, I think it is a great idea to try to take the conversation offline, and let it continue when it is once again, beneficial to your online presence.

Doug Pruden

August 30, 2010 8:05 AM

Use of back channels makes a lot of sense, but I have concerns with: 1) making it the customer’s responsibility to turn around and contact your company through more traditional customer service channels, and 2) assuming that your happy customers will come to your defense in the public media.

In regard to traditional channels, the unhappy customer is likely going public with their complaint or concern on Twitter or Facebook because the mass media continually reports on how much better care customers are receiving through those channels. Customers are beginning to think they have done their part by Tweeting, and that it’s then becomes the corporation’s responsibility to magically “fix everything”. Expectations are high and unless you are certain that your customer service team is extremely skilled and motivated, you are taking a chance asking that the customer go to them once the social media team has opened direct communications.

In regard to hoping that satisfied customers will come to your defense in the public forum, that may or may not work, depending on your product category. Most “satisfied” customers just aren’t emotionally attached enough to a brand to bother responding (despite what they claim in response to Net Promoter research). Many more simply will NEVER write anything (it’s just not their nature). Others would write, but miss the opportunity because they just never come across the criticism. Finally there are customers who buy loyally but really just don’t have any meaningful “content” to offer that might counter the negative comments.

Until brands begin to identify those customers who are behaviorally loyal, emotionally committed, and of the personality type that does speak out, and “arms” those individuals with knowledge and the opportunity to respond, the likelihood that many of them will come to the rescue is not great.

Doug Pruden,
Customer Experience Partners

Joe Sorge

August 30, 2010 8:42 AM

I think I may disagree with this post. Isn't it possible that a direct response from the business owner illustrates a closeness to the business and concern for the guest/customer? Additionally, if answered appropriately in a public domain you may even have the chance to draw in new business I believe.

Bruce D. Sanders

September 2, 2010 1:44 PM

Research at Case Western Reserve University points out that customers with complaints range from those who just want to have an "I'm sorry" ("I'm sorry," with its tone of personal responsibility is much better than "We're sorry") all the way up to activists who plan to go to the media or to government agencies, no matter what you do. When one of your customers complains, assess the agenda by asking, "How can I make it right?" From my understanding of the research, I believe this will produce better results than the "How can we help you?" you'd suggested, Eric. I see that in his comment here, Mark uses the "I" format for his example.
From the number of comments your posting has received, Eric, and the length of some of those comments, it's clear that you've given us the opportunity to address a lively topic.

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