How To Handle Bad Press. Hint: Be Human

As an entrepreneur, the problem with negative feedback of any kind is that it’s instantly personal: they might as well have called your newborn ugly.

What’s more, thanks to social media, would-be critics have the power to tell thewhole world your newborn is ugly. But take heart: the very fact that the feedback loop has gone public (and will, on occasion, go viral) is a good thing. It gives any entrepreneur the unprecedented chance to learn, to adapt, and ultimately to strengthen their brand – but only if you know how to deal with it.

Now, there are some obvious don’ts that should be clear to all by now (eg. don’t get defensive, don’t get sucked into a shouting match, don’t delete everything but the good stuff). But beyond not doing the patently wrong thing, consider 5 ways to really do the right thing – not just for you critics, but for your company.

1. Get there first.

It goes without saying that you want to answer most negative feedback quickly – ideally within an hour. But only if you have something thoughtful to say. The good news is that no one is as simultaneously enamored and chronically dissatisfied with their product as entrepreneurs. Use that to your advantage. Pull together a mix of recent and longer-term employees and brainstorm a list of every possible complaint you think your product could reasonably invite. Then ask: how could we theoretically respond in the most compelling and constructive way? Having even a loose game plan going in helps you act swiftly and thoughtfully when the time comes. Bonus: it also lets you measure the gap between what you assume might bug a customer and what actually does, which is a good yardstick for how well you understand your audience.

2. Read between the lines.

One of the most disarming things you can do when faced with criticism is ask a follow-up question. It sends the message that you’re not only listening, you’re genuinely trying to understand. Even feedback that seems black and white (as in “My tuna melt was too cold”) could have a root cause that’s not necessarily obvious (is the oven too cold or was the wait time too long?). Remember, the goal isn’t to handle complaints – the goal is to enable conversations. That doesn’t mean you spend hours on a single comment, but it does mean it’s worth the extra minute or two it takes to make your customers feel that someone actually cared enough to dig a little bit deeper.

3. Watch your tone, young man.

What you say is almost always less important than how you say it. Tone trumps all. But it’s not just about being friendly – it’s about speaking in your brand’s voice. If you don’t know what your brand voice is (or should be), it’s time to nail that down. Try a celebrity shortcut if you’re unsure where to start: Are you more Pharrell Williams or Kanye West? More Will Ferrell or Wilford Brimley? Put simply, your tone is simply a reflection of your brand’s overall personality – and answering feedback can be a great way to test out the appeal of that voice in real-time. Done well, adopting this voice should come naturally (and authentically) to anyone you hire to interact with your users, since you should always search for people who are motivated by your larger brand purpose. That said, assuming your company isn’t run by cyborgs or law clerks, at the bare minimum every interaction with a user or customer must feel human above all else. There’s never a good reason to be overly legalistic or needlessly formal. Ever.

4. Pass it on.

The person posting to an airlines’ Facebook feed about rude airport check-in staff wants to be heard – but not by a social media manager. So unless you’ve established a way to share feedback all the way down to the front lines, you might as well ignore it entirely. That doesn’t mean that you’re constantly pinging every employee with every bit of bad press that may be relevant (or related) to them – but you do need to be looking for patterns and finding smart ways to share the good, bad, and ugly with the right people on a regular basis.

5. Close the loop.

The quickest way to turn a critic into an evangelist is to include whoever gave you the negative feedback in the solution. That might mean you’re personally writing to someone and saying, “Three weeks ago, you mentioned in a tweet that you hated how [insert gripe here]. We took your point seriously and our design team came up with a better solution – and now it’s live. Let me know if we hit the nail on the head.” You may need to send out the same email hundreds of times depending on how many people pointed out the same basic issue. Do it, even if they themselves didn’t technically prompt the change. Take any opportunity to make users or customers feel like they are actively helping to make your company better. With a little luck, they won’t stop trying to.


This article originally appeared in Wall Street Journal