Confronting the Critics Online

Jim Coll
Jim Coll

Engagement—it’s a goal of almost all social media strategies. Likes, retweets, followers, replies and comments are the surest sign of a vibrant social media presence. But what happens when engagement takes a turn for the worse, when a post is met with criticism, when a reply to criticism is met with additional criticism, again and again? Unfortunately, most organizations unwittingly have slipped into a spiral of negativity on Facebook or other social media platforms at one time or another. If this has not happened yet, it perhaps means the organization has not been engaged in social media long or intensely enough.

At its worst, social media is a place for “Friends” to question an organization’s integrity or motives and for trolls to attack, often with language that they might not use in person.

At its best, there are few better catalysts to spread positive energy and emotion quickly. The best crisis managers know when to step back and allow venting, and when to capitalize on positive feelings.

The good news for organizations is that there are Friends in low places. No one with a vibrant and large social media following is exempt from sharp, sarcastic and often unwarranted criticism. The better news is that the public generally and quickly moves on to the next social media crisis. In other words, the pain, albeit especially harsh and particularly intense, usually is brief.

In an emotional Facebook back-and-forth, both parties can lose, but the organization stands to lose the most.

How and when should organizations interact with a social media critic? Certain careful considerations can help guide an appropriate response.

First, organizations would be wise to ask the same questions about the crisis they would have asked 10 years ago. The same situations still warrant apologies. The same situations warrant the same responses. The right thing to do is still the right thing to do.

Second, organizations are mistaken when they believe that social media has changed communication in every way.

Speed has increased, but the basic principles remain. Whether it’s said on Facebook or presented at a news conference, audience members must trust the organization and know that it has their best interests at heart.

The University of Southern Mississippi presents a decision-making tree to faculty and staff who manage social media accounts to help guide responses to negative feedback ( see graphic below).

Its overarching aim is to take emotion out of the evaluation, as quick-to-anger is not the way for an organization to respond to even the most ridiculous criticism.

During a crisis, not every complaint warrants a response and not every question deserves an answer. Organizations cannot and will not win over every commenter.

Trying too hard could be a sign of insecurity. Learn which posts warrant responses. Organizations should comment when they have something to clarify or add to the conversation.

Some additional considerations include:

Is the criticism accurate and reasonable? If yes, the organization may benefit from a thoughtful response that acknowledges the criticism and establishes a path toward correction or rectification of the issue.

Is it someone who genuinely is misinformed? If yes, a careful clarification of the misinformation and additional detail could benefit the organization.

Is it a critic who is consistently posting off-topic? If yes, then an initial response could address the concern, but hiding the posts or eventual banning of the user should be considered.

Is the person being rude or using sarcasm or profanity? If yes, hiding the posts or banning the user should be considered.

While the decision tree helps less-experienced page managers avert disaster, advanced social media management requires adherence to basic principles of public relations.

Facebook page managers frequently err when they mistake social media for a foreign or unique form of communication. One basic rule of thumb is to reflect on a similar in-person interaction. The platform should not necessarily change the approach.

Think of the organization as a person. If a person would not typically respond in-person to the critic, why should he/she do so on Facebook?

If a clarification of facts would be offered in-person, why not on Facebook as well? Ask yourself if a person on the street approached and uttered an insult, would you respond? It probably depends on the insulter. The same considerations should be weighed on Facebook.

For instance, ignoring the critic who has little or no influence on others, doesn’t understand the issue and will have no influence on an organization’s future words or actions is often the best strategy.

Experienced organization managers have learned that to win a social media dispute they must stoop to levels the critic is apt to go, but to which the page administrator is unwilling to go. Sarcasm is fine for the troll, not for the organization.

The best crisis managers keep a level head. Some of the best, most thoughtful responses to criticism acknowledge the criticism and then bridge back to a key message. It is the administrator’s job—a difficult one at times—to keep the focus of the conversation on the primary topic of discussion.

Of course, a page administrator can stand his or her ground and still be polite. He or she can disagree with the criticism but still be empathetic and sincere. When all else fails, be polite and kind.

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Jim Coll is CCO at The University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at

 This article originally appeared in the April 13, 2015 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.