“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” – Aristotle
I was recently invited to share some ideas on how to respond to online comments and criticism.
1. Decision making Tree (U.S. Air Force)
The following decision tree is an excellent starting point for any practitioner (link here). While we do not need to respond to all comments, how do you know when to respond and when not to?
2. Recent Research and How Our Organization identity Can Guide a Response
Research recently published in Business & Society, also discussed in Strategy + Business, invites us to look at our options for responding through the lens of organizational identity. If criticism aimed out an organization’s core identity is both salient and delivered by an important stakeholder, then we must respond. For example, if your spouse criticizes you for being a poor partner who doesn’t contribute enough, you might respond by showing that you are a good parent who wants to raise the children well. This hypothetical illustrates the key point–if the criticism hits at the heart of our identity, we need to respond. But, richness of our identity may open up more opportunities to respond.
Organizations with Singular or Limited Identities: An SME could potentially, in some cases, serve as an example here. If there is not a lot of range to an organizational identity, then the only option is to address the criticism directly by dismissing it or communicating directly (apologizing, etc).
Organizations with Complex or Diverse Identities: A multinational might be, in some cases, an example. Here, a company criticized for paying its executives a bonus following an economic downturn might respond by saying yes, but look at all the good (e.g., CSR) we do around the world with the wealth we create. Here, the organizations can deflect the criticism away and toward another organizational identity. This type of deflection is not an option for companies with more singular/limited identities.
Now, if have a singular identity, and the comment is not salient or from a powerful stakeholder, you typically would dismiss the comment. And in this same situation but with a complex identity, you could either dismiss or deflect.
Either way, you have more options if you organization has a rich identity (but don’t start creating more identities for this reason alone…that would be putting the cart before the horse).
3. Five Practical Tips for Responding to Online Comments
Keep it Authentic. In the online world, people hate corporate speak. They don’t want to be spoken down to or talked at. So the corporate speak you may have learned when you began your corporate communication career will not serve you well online. Be a human being, treat people like you would want to be treated, be yourself, and be nice. Think about what grandmother taught you about being decent, and you can’t go too far off course.
Listen First. Steven Covey got it right. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. The order is important here, and when we get the order reversed we tend to invite trouble.
Focus on Responding; Forget about Selling. When responding to online comments, forget about selling your company. Let people know you are a great organization by staying focused, responding to their concern, and letting your actions speak for the quality of your customer service. Actions will often rise above the angry words.
Personalize the Response. Avoid standard templates. Each response should be unique. Yes, this takes more time..but they took the time to write to you. So if they gave their time to you, what message would you be sending if you did not give time to them but instead offered a cookie cutter reply? You risk making the situation worse, and do remember how quickly emotions (and your poor response) can spread across the Internet.
Remember That the Internet Never Forgets. Whatever you do, always keep in mind that your reply will be searchable for as long as the world has electricity. Don’t fire of a harsh or knee-jerk response. Walk away for 20 minutes, then come back and craft something more reasonable. And if someone is unhappy, always remind yourself you have an opportunity to reduce that feeling and make their day a little better. If you communicate and act with such good intentions, people will notice and that is what the Internet will remember.
So there are three different perspectives for responding online. Part three will look at a few case studies to wrap up this mini series.