The Digital Vibes

Tips for Dealing with Online Negativity
September 26, 2008, 1:50 pm
Filed under: Online presence, Social Media | Tags: , ,

This was extracted from Paul Gillin’s Social Media Report newsletter and it’s timely advice, especially following a client meeting that I had when I suggested incorporating social media elements into a product launch, and the client expressed reservation about the potential of negative comments expressed online:

Anyone who embarks upon a social media campaign risks opening him- or herself to attack. Even the most noble causes can run afoul of extremists. In the vast majority of cases, these problems can be contained with sufficient planning. The trick is not to get caught flat-footed by criticism you didn’t expect. In fact, when managed professionally, negativity can actually enhance your image by demonstrating that you’ve thought through the issues in detail.

Negativity can usually be anticipated and blunted if you deploy a few basic tactics:

Anticipate. Before launching a blog or public forum, know what you’re getting into. If you have critics, they will use the opportunity to air their gripes. Even if you don’t think you have critics, you should be prepared for them to emerge from unexpected places. 

One client chose to blog about his adventures exploring new geographies. He was proud of his efforts and so was completely blindsided when environmentalists began attacking him. Had he thought through his topic more thoroughly, he might have anticipated such criticism. 

Most businesses are poorly prepared to anticipate criticism because they only see the good in what they do. Here’s where an outside perspective may help. Come up with all reasonable arguments against your story and prepare a defense for each. It may be worth hiring a domain expert or journalist to help poke holes in your case.

Keep calm. The knee-jerk reaction to criticism is usually “How dare they!”, but reacting defensively rarely works. Critics are inclined to be blunt when they think they’re shouting into an empty well, but they’re more civil when confronting a real person. Use their anger to reinforce your rationality. Count to 100 before responding, maybe take a walk around the block and then consider if there is any validity to the critic’s comments. Conceding that someone has a point — even if you don’t plan to do anything about it — is the fastest way to disarm him. Simply saying that you heard his comments will go miles toward soothing his anger.

If you really want to confound a critic, look up his phone number online (this usually isn’t difficult). Even if you end up leaving a voicemail, the mere act of personalizing an anonymous interaction often heads off a confrontation.

Don’t censor. One client got so flustered by unanticipated negativity that he began deleting critical comments. NEVER DO THIS. Censorship won’t silence your critics; it will only send them to other forums you don’t control. It’s okay to edit obscene or inappropriate remarks, but don’t delete them just because you don’t like what they say. Once you have created a public forum, you must live with the consequences. 

A little criticism actually isn’t a bad thing. It makes you look more credible. Respond to adversaries using the tactics outlined above, but don’t use your power to silence them. It will backfire on you.

Address issues, not people. Your most vociferous critics may stoop to character assassination to dramatize their case. Don’t go there. Address issues, but leave the name-calling to the amateurs.

You also don’t have to speak directly to your critics. If people are harping on one issue, post information that addresses several critics. DuPont did this a few years ago when rumors popped up that Teflon caused cancer. DuPont didn’t address its critics directly but instead set up a website to tell the truth about Teflon. By refuting the rumors with scientific evidence, the company quickly put the issue to bed. Bloggers helped out by linking to DuPont’s informational website. The company never got down in the muck with its detractors, but effectively dispatched the rumors with facts. 

If you employ these four tactics, you’ll be able to cope with nearly every challenge to your credibility, even the unanticipated ones.


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Thanks for the shout-out. If anyone wants to sign up for my weekly newsletter, you can do so at my blog. Just fill out the short form on the right.

Comment by Paul Gillin

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