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Dealing with Social Media Criticism: Deflect, Defy, Defend?

A tag cloud for an unnamed airline

A tag cloud for an unnamed airline – Photo credit: Brian Solis

From vitriolic social media tag clouds to unhappy customer videos gone viral, it’s no secret that people are shouting about the poor service they receive to anyone in the social sphere who will listen. But whether you’re a Fortune 500 CEO or part of a growing mom and pop store, the way you handle social media complaints says a lot more about your company than any slick advertisement.

Should you even bother to try and step forward to remedy things that are seemingly out of your control? After all, disgruntled customers already have made up their minds to choose a competitor, right?

Not exactly. According to a study by RightNow, when customers did receive a response to their complaint, almost half of them were pleased by the company’s interaction, and 22% of those customers posted a positive comment about the company or brand. Keep in mind that this is the same company they were bashing just recently.

But if it’s so easy, why doesn’t every company step up and accept responsibility for their mistakes and offer an apology?

Deflect: Lack of a Unified Voice

The truth is that many companies simply don’t feel they are equipped to deal with social media criticism and complaints. According to a survey by Ethical Corporation, fully 72% of companies rated their social media criticism preparedness as average or below average.

ability to cope with social media criticism

Look at it this way: customer service handles things like telephone inquiries, while tech support might deal with emails, and the public relations department wrangles with the media. But unless you have a set policy for social media interactions, it’s going to fall squarely on the shoulders of the “it’s not my problem” department.

Companies can no longer feign ignorance when it comes to social media, either. In the past, it was easy to throw up your hands in despair and claim “I didn’t know how to use the technology!” and you’d be (mostly) forgiven. But it’s 2013, and social media has seeped into and latched onto our daily lives.

The bottom line is that there is no excuse for not taking advantage of the many tools, resources, and education available and creating a unified set of (somewhat flexible) rules that apply to all of your interactions with customers on social networks.

Here’s one example of a company that, despite overwhelming negative media attention, stepped up to the plate and took control of its social media strategy before the firestorm of blame soared out of control.

Carnival Cruise Lines was facing a major social media backlash after the crippled cruise liner Triumph hobbled into a Mobile, Alabama, port early last month. Using Twitter, Carnival’s CEO responded with compassion, understanding, and a commitment to the stranded, fed up, and tired passengers. Staff also did their best to quell any fast-spreading rumors before things got even more out of hand.

carnival cruise tweets

Not only did Carnival foot the bill for the cruise and most of the expenses therein, they also helped secure hotel rooms and transportation free of charge, provided credit for a future cruise, and gave an extra $500 on top of that. While some customers, understandably, will never book with Carnival again, many others appreciated the sincerity and generosity of the gesture.

There still are a lot of unanswered questions, but Carnival’s mishap hasn’t rippled out to affect other cruise lines or caused travelers to second-guess their summer vacation plans just yet. As this example illustrates, a good social media strategy may not always put out the fire entirely, but it can certainly contain it.

Defy: Turning a Mishap into a Marketing Opportunity

You may have heard about the #gettngslizzerd social fiasco a couple of years ago when a social media manager at Red Cross got his accounts mixed up and posted this gem:

red cross social media

Fortunately, the organization took the mistake in good stride and tweeted a humorous apology. What you may not have heard is that the company mentioned, Dogfish Head Brewery, seized the opportunity brought by the added exposure to launch its own campaign. It generated blood donations for those in need and shined the spotlight on a microbrewery that truly “got” the social in social media.

For a more recent example, you may have heard of the furor surrounding Samsung and a couple of Indian bloggers who were to cover the IFA trade show in Berlin last September. Essentially, Samsung (which itself is no stranger to social media controversy) flew them to Berlin to report independently, but then demanded that the bloggers represent them at the trade show. They were expected to man a booth, show off their devices, and wear the company’s uniform, or they’d be stranded halfway around the world and be forced to get their own return plane tickets and cover hotel and transportation costs.

When the bloggers refused to act as “brand ambassadors,” their return tickets were canceled with the stipulation that they’d be reinstated if the bloggers agreed to promote the brand and not blog about the incident.

Samsung later apologized to the bloggers (although not publicly), but the damage had been done. Competitor Nokia seized the opportunity to buy the tickets and pay the expenses for the stranded bloggers, generating massive amounts of positive press for the mobile phone manufacturer.

Both of these examples illustrate that, even though social media has been a marketing mainstay for several years now, there still are opportunities to defy the rules and pounce when an opportunity presents itself. This isn’t to say that you should nip at the heels of every misstep your competitors make, but know how to spot an advantageous situation that will cast your brand as the hero customers are looking for.

Defend: Is Transparency Always a Good Thing?

One of the most important things that brands, large and small, quickly learn about social media marketing is that customers are going to tell you what they think, no matter what, and you’d better be vigilant about it. After a controversy sprang up over home improvement retailer Lowe’s pulling its ads from TLC’s All-American Muslim TV show, Lowe’s promptly acknowledged and clarified its stance on the issue.

Lowes response t.v. show

Their response was honest, straightforward, and sincere; however, the comments quickly degraded into a hotbed for racist slurs and other unsavory and offensive comments. Rather than delete the offending comments, Lowe’s left the page unattended for the weekend and racked up over 23,000 comments from users in that timeframe.

Later, they came back, deleted the offensive comments, and explained their position as one in which they wanted to let the transparency of social media shine through. Of course, it could have been relegated back to the “it’s not my job” department since it happened over a weekend, but as any social media manager can tell you, the social sphere never sleeps.

Southwest Airlines took a page from the transparency playbook this past summer to promote 50% off airfare using its “Wanna Get Away” campaign. Select airfares were slashed in celebration of the company reaching 3 million fans on Facebook.

Starts out great – customers get a great deal, the company celebrates a huge milestone, and everybody wins – right? Except that the server suddenly became bogged down with new and returning customers all trying to use the code before the tight deadline. Some customers were charged multiple times (even having their bank accounts emptied, according to complaints on Facebook). One fellow mistakenly booked himself 12 flights!

Rather than shuffling their feet on the issue or poking their head in the sand and hoping it would all go away, Southwest was highly proactive and took steps to delete duplicate bookings, refund bank overdraft fees, and generally untangle the mess. While these steps took time, Southwest regarded transparency very seriously and kept customers updated at all times via its Facebook page.


There’s no doubt that one of the biggest risks to businesses involved in social media is the possibility of brand and reputation damage. In fact, 35% of individuals surveyed in an Altimeter Group study believed that reputation risk management was of critical importance, with over half of respondents considering it a significant or moderate risk.

But brand hawks and social media managers alike shouldn’t fear the two-way communication streets that networks like Twitter and Facebook afford. Rather, they should create a unified message that embodies the brand and engages customers accordingly. So, set up rules on how interactions and complaints should be handled. Also, be on the lookout for areas where competitors come up short and your company can step in and turn the situation in your favor.

Finally, realize that social media is in its infancy and, as such, is a lot like an adventurous toddler. It might get loud, be mischievous, or stumble along, but it does learn, grow, and evolve over time. People may forget the problems that stung the company’s reputation, but they won’t soon forget how the company handled it.

What are your thoughts on handling a social media crisis? Which method works best for you?

About the Author: Neil Patel is the cofounder of Neil Patel Digital.

  1. I love when ad campaigns backfire on social media, it is really hilarious :D

  2. I follow the Air Force Web Posting Response Assessment. So far, it has been an infallible guide that has helped me make the right response in every social media situation I’ve encountered

  3. Great article Neil, thank you for sharing!
    I find it very relevant as I’m focus on this space (ie: the interactions between brands and consumers). Your article is quite complete and has some good references.

    The numbers are pretty impressive and I am a big believer in ‘Defensive Marketing’ aka: the opportunity to engage with complaining customers to deal with them effectively while at the same time displaying a genuine face as a brand that cares about its users and polish its reputation. This is great ‘brand management’ and I expect to see more and more examples of that, especially in this social media space.

    I would love to know what you think of blacklist as the online destination for people to react on their consumer experience and leverage their voice, in order to have a chance to get heard and impact accordingly. The concept is to Blacklist the products & brands they dislike or had a bad experience with.

    Sincerely, Val

  4. Stephen Tamlin Mar 06, 2013 at 2:45 am

    Really great article.

    I had never heard of the Samsung blog incident which I believe was pretty bad of them. They clearly do not understand bloggers.

    This article relates to a blog I wrote about a month ago in response to some great negativity management from Boingo Wireless’ Twitter account.

    Boingo are proactive in searching for frustrated customers and try to solve their problems, as you’ll see from the link they take it to the extreme.

  5. My first advice to clients is not to give their customers much to complain about, but when things do go awry, deal with it. Complaints are expected and give an opportunity to show what the company is really made of. For the trolls and jerks, just have a thick skin; people see them for what they are. Lastly, your customers are talking about you whether you know it or not… may as well be there.

  6. David Kimberley Mar 08, 2013 at 2:29 am

    I deal more with facebook and I tend to delete troll comments as fast as possible. I hide complaints but choose to send a message to the person and request that they contact us by email or phone. If the person doesn’t respond which they hardly ever do I will put the response on the comment (facebook will hide comment but allow it to be seen by their friends). BTW most complaints is because users try access our websites from mobile devices. Although their plans cover Facebook they don’t cover internet usage or their phone is incompatible in some way. (The percentage is small, less than 0.3% of users who can but enough for us want to do something about it).

    I don’t like the way some brands allow negative comments to roll in and wish they would remove them. Banks in my country are notorious for allowing this behavior. I don’t care about how long some one waited in a queue. If I go to their page i’m looking for a deal, a special or competition or perhaps a press release – not to read about how a teller was rude.

  7. Yes, I follow the Air Force Web Posting Response Assessment. So far, it has been an infallible guide that has helped me make the right response in every social media situation I’ve encountered.


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