How to Handle Social Media Criticism
Protecting Your Reputation and Strengthening Customer Loyalty
"What a bunch of *&%$"#^ amateurs!" Imagine that you've just seen this highly negative comment on social media, and it's about your business. Do you reply right away? Do you reply at all? Should you firmly defend your actions, or apologize profusely?
You have a minefield of options open to you right now and your audience has never been bigger. You need to get this right.
In this article, we'll look at the threats and opportunities that social media criticisms might pose for you, and explore how best to prepare for and respond to them.
The Public Arena
Until not very long ago, the only way to complain to a company was to write a letter, make a phone call, or send an email. This took some effort and quite a lot of time, and you couldn't be sure that you'd get a response, so you'd likely give up after your first attempt.
Nowadays, no organization can hide from its critics. Even if a business has no deliberate social media presence, its customers, former employees, or the press will probably be talking about it freely – and sometimes negatively.
A report from the U.K.'s Institute of Customer Services (ICS) found that 25 percent of the social media users that it surveyed had made a complaint by a public channel over a three-month period in early 2015. And 12 percent of customers had resorted to social media after other methods of complaining had failed – a sharp increase on 3 percent in 2014.
But there's no one out there policing how your company name is used or abused, so it's down to you to find out what's going on! And if you're not seen to be engaging with social media users, and you don't respond appropriately to complaints or rumours, the situation will likely escalate – as U.S. health services company Harvard Pilgrim and technology giant Dell™ learned to their cost.
Negative to Positive
Thankfully, the situation isn't all doom and gloom. In fact, you have great opportunities here, too. Imagine harnessing the power of the same crowd that's voicing negative views about your organization, to work in your favor!
The same ICS study showed that 64 percent of the people who'd made their complaints socially had had a positive experience as a result. A U.S. study by RightNow (now part of Oracle®) showed that people who'd left negative online reviews about their purchases were likely to revise or remove those reviews if the company dealt well with their complaints. In fact, 22 percent posted a positive comment. And case studies show the hugely positive outcomes of responding to an individual customer's concerns honestly, creatively and with a human touch.
An off-the-cuff response won't generate this kind of warmth, however. You'll need a robust plan for handling social media complaints, as part of your social media strategy.
1. Watch and Listen
Don't wait for a public relations storm or cancelled orders. Instead, catch issues as they arise by monitoring the action.
Each social media platform provides its own built-in notifications service that you should pay close attention to. Complement this with Social Mention, a free tool that checks across social platforms, and Google Alerts™, which tracks all online content, not just social media.
Both tools will alert you when anyone uses your chosen search terms, such as your company or product names. Social Mention will also give scores including "sentiment" and "passion." In this context, sentiment is the ratio of positive mentions to negative, while passion is about the number of people mentioning you repeatedly.
There are very many other analytics services available, including Hootsuite® and Veooz™, which is particularly useful for speakers of Indian languages. But their functionality, availability and cost is constantly changing, so start with the basics: learn how much information your organization needs, and how much it can cope with. Only then should you look more widely.
Whatever method you choose, remember that people are using social media across the globe, at all times of day and night. So you'll need to be constantly alert, even outside of your normal office hours.
2. Ensure a Safe Pair of Hands
Who is responsible for your social media monitoring and responses – one person or a team? How much time and attention can they give to the role, and do they have the necessary skills? In the early days of social media, someone would have been given the task as a low-priority extra, to fit in as and when he or she could. Now, you'll need some particularly skilled people to run your company accounts.
To make sure your social media reputation is in safe hands, select someone who has:
- Experience of using social media platforms and trends. He'll be technically confident and accurate, and have credibility among the users.
- The ability to use analytics intelligently. She'll know what to look for, be able to manage and interpret the data, and recommend appropriate action.
- Strong networks within the organization and outside of it. He'll be aware of issues or developments, and know who to go to for expert advice.
- High emotional intelligence. She'll keep calm whatever the tone of comments, be able to spot what's really being said, and defuse tension.
Then you'll need to brief him on what you expect and how much freedom he has. Bear in mind that social media is much more informal than other corporate communication channels, but you'll no doubt have some limits! Be sure to listen to his professional advice, consult specialist forums, and look at your competitors' approaches. You could even experiment on anonymous pilot accounts to find a voice that fits.
You'll be ready for the brutal world of social media when you feel confident about:
- Which types of post are potential dynamite, and which are best ignored.
- When to take conversations out of the public view.
- When to refer to a higher authority.
- When humor is helpful and when it isn't.
- When to defend your actions and when to apologize for them.
Remember, you can use holding replies to relieve the pressure, and private replies to maintain confidentiality. And, in extreme cases, mute, hide, block, or report an abusive user, as each platform allows.
3. Prepare for the Worst
Personal messages are the heart of social media. So an individual reply to everyone who contacts or mentions you can show your understanding, willingness to help, and personality. But if the situation really is too big to handle in this way, don't just go quiet. Acknowledge your limited resources, and direct people elsewhere until the crisis has passed. For example, you can pin a post to the top of your social media page that directs users to a full response on your website.
When the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig disaster happened in 2010, BP® made a special web page. Here, it posted all the information it was willing to make public, including a live video stream of the leaking wellhead, and directed anyone with a query or comment to that page.
Social media gives mass access to, and exposure of, the heart of your business, so it demands respect. Be sure to monitor activity across platforms around the clock, and keep up to date with developments and issues. Make responsibility for social media a key role in your organization, not an add-on.
Every organization is unique and your strategy will be too, but always communicate promptly, honestly and in keeping with your brand, and remember that your audience is global. Learn from your competitors' successes and mistakes. Plan what to do in a crisis.
Apply This to Your Life
Take some time now to view your social media accounts and consider what you look like to those reading your posts, watching your videos or viewing your images.
- Is your current social media presence something you're proud of? Does it reflect the ethics and goals of what you do, and is it human-friendly? Ask someone else to describe you or your business, based on your social media representation alone.
- Imagine some worst-case scenarios and work out how you'd deal with them.
- Make your purpose excellent customer service. Go beyond working out how to handle complaints, and aim to build relationships with people!
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