Alec Sharratt

Handling Online Criticism

24th Jul 2012 Brand 6 minutes to read

HowMany of you will have heard or seen the recent news story about the 9 year old Scottish girl, Martha Payne, who had her very successful blog banned by her school and local council. This is such a perfect example of how not to deal with online criticism it needs a mention. The fact that this school were deliberately thwarting an entrepreneurial 9 year old whose efforts were raising thousands of pounds for charity was compounded by the other salient fact that they were doing so in order to silence a critic.

Once the media got a hold of this story, and it was inevitable that they would, the school and council had the burning spotlight of the country’s news agencies levelled squarely at them. This made them look like the self interested, anti-inspirational bullies that they are. The sad thing is that this whole debacle could have been avoided or moreover it could have been transformed into a fantastic opportunity to get national recognition for their brilliant young schoolgirl.

This kind of response is deplorable and elicited a similar reaction from most people, which damaged the school’s reputation. When in reality what the school had was a pupil capable of generating money for charity, a 9 year old capable of writing engaging content, and national coverage of that fact. A response along the lines of “our school’s dinners might not be great but our pupils are” would have lent itself to a much more friendly appearance.

You can watch a video based on this blog post below:

Being Online

This really drills down the crux of my advice here which is that bad social media engagement when dealing with online criticism is an intrinsic part of having an online presence. Being online means that you expose yourself to criticism and attacks from the public, but it is how you deal with it that matters.

Obviously you must assess the criticism before taking any action, if someone is just trolling then it could be ignored or if someone is offensive and crude then removing a comment might be appropriate. If the criticism is fair, genuine and from customers then it must be addressed properly.

The Rules

The following are six basic rules of engagement for your social media strategy:

  • Build relationships
  • Train employees
  • Company policies on social media usage
  • Respond quickly
  • Use real time brand monitoring tools
  • Be polite, professional and act like it matters!

I will explain each of these in more detail below:

Build Relationships

The primary purpose and to a large extent the only purpose of social media ‘engagement’ is to build relationships with your target audience, customers and potential customers online. With this in mind everything that is done using social media should be positive. Because, keeping this in mind means that tit-for-tat comments, trying to exact revenge or rising to criticism with aggression will not occur.

Train Employees

This is vital if your employees use social media but are not experts at doing so, ensuring that staff understand what is and is not acceptable. This can also include training in how to use the various tools available such as Tweetdeck, how to setup and manage an effective Twitter account. If people know how and when to use social media they are less likely to do something that could result in negative press.


A great example of where employees should be trained is demonstrated in the case of “Price Chopper” in America. Here an employee of the company responded to a customer complaint on Twitter by contacting the employer of the customer and asking that they be disciplined. Unfortunately for the Price Chopper employee, the customer had an influential friend with a strong blog, who made the story go viral.

Company Policies

Having a good clear set of policies on how and when to use social media, as well as a clear chain of command for dealing with criticism will help to reinforce the point above. Incorporating these policies into the training will help to provide your employees with a transparent guide to what is acceptable behaviour.


Nestle came under attack from Greenpeace during a campaign designed to highlight Nestle and Kit Kat’s procurement from companies that were contributing the destruction of the rainforest. This also highlighted the impact on the indigenous people and the native Orang-Utans. This campaign started on YouTube but eventually spilled onto Facebook and Twitter before going viral.

If you are systematically destroying rainforests and endangered species, it’s probably best to have a strong social media strategy in place to deal with the inevitable condemnation that will be levelled at you.

Respond Quickly

This point addresses two main ideas; respond and respond quickly! Both are of equal importance; responding to criticism quickly can completely avoid an incident in the first instance. As some of the examples below illustrate, a quick response can make all the difference to controlling a situation prior to it escalating.

Not responding at all, to concerns or criticism can render you highly exposed to further criticism that can snowball out of control.


Jeff Jarvis who is a prolific blogger was also a customer of Dell, after receiving some bad customer service at the hands of the global computer manufacturer he published an article on his blog entitled “Dell Sucks. Dell Lies”.

Dell did eventually respond but they had left enough time for the blog to go viral and give rise to hundreds of comments, and other posts all slamming Dell. The flip side of this situation is that Dell did resolve the situation and Mr Jarvis wrote a follow up post entitled “Dell learns to listen”. Since this incident Dell learnt their lesson and employed a comprehensive social media strategy with social media managers and processes in place.

Real Time Brand Monitoring Tools

Real Time Brand monitoring Tools help to facilitate the point above point. Giving you real time information on how and when your brand name is being used gives you the information that you need in order to make good fast decisions. Here is a white paper on brand monitoring by Koozai /resources/whitepapers/brand-monitoring-guide/


Domino Pizza employees a one of their branches filmed themselves “doing things with the food” and then decided to upload this to YouTube. The video went viral before the company had a chance to respond and despite the employees in question were fired and the video removed, the damage was done. If they had used Real Time Brand monitoring Tools, although it would not have prevented the video from being uploaded, it would have let them know instantly. The difference in response times would have meant that the video never went viral and thus would have averted the incident.

Be Polite, Professional & Act Like It Matters!

This is simple and should underpin your entire approach to using social media, if you do this, there should be no major blunders. Act like it matters because it does!

If you know of any juicy social media engagement disasters then please let us know about them by leaving a comment in the comments box below.

Image Source

Woman with doubtful expression and question marks all over her head via BigStock

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