Photo by Enuwy via Flickr
With all the good advice out there about dealing with negative comments you'd think managing negativity would be no big deal. (Um...that would be "no.")
What's frustrating for communicators is that we're usually dying to get out there and communicate. Even when the organization has made mistakes we know:
1. Being there first, fast, and fluently is the way to defuse a crisis early on.
2. Not dealing with it means that people think you're guilty.
3. People thinking you're guilty means they read negative meaning into everything you say.
4. Once trust is lost, even when you listen, the audience doesn't trust you and so accuses you of being Big Brotheresque.
5. Real criticism left un-dealt with can easily turn into hate writing either organically or because it's exploited.
If the organization really, really, really can't respond....then something is really, really, really wrong.
Even the most innovative companies have very thin skins about criticism. When Mark Zuckerberg's ghostwriter, Katherine Losse (The Boy Kings), questioned Facebook's privacy practices, Zuckerberg did **not** sit down and ask her to expound. Rather he said, "I don’t know if I trust you.” (quoted from Losse's recollection in article at The Washington Post)
Odd for someone who believes in transparency to insist that you follow questionable practices without question.
Fast Company described the gap between companies' professed allegiance to feedback, transparency and responsiveness and actual practices in the September 2012 issue. Here are a couple of gems. (Note that the ageist debate over social media managers continues...that nerve apparently is still sore.)
“What They Said” vs. “What They Meant”
Said: "We like to listen."
Meant: "We hired a 24-year-old to stand in front of a firehose of complaints."
Said: "That data isn't available yet."
Meant: "That data is embarrassing."
Said: "Social media allows us to understand the pulse of the customer."
Meant: "We all get into a room and freak out."
At the end of the day, the issue is not really the "how" of responding. That is straightforward enough - determine if the content is genuine and not just provocative hate speech; decide on the best communication tool with which to respond; and respond factually and respectfully, making it clear who authorized you to speak and what your scope of authority is.
Really what it comes down to is the climate within the organization when it comes to dealing with dissent, internally and externally.
* In a healthy situation (let's be honest, rare) there is a high level of comfort in responding to disagreement or complaint and there are institutional structures set up to carry out the organization's response policies.
* In an unhealthy organization there are barriers against hearing what people are saying, up to and including that there is any dissent at all.
Part of having a functional communication department is communicating; part of it is listening; and part of it is interacting genuinely with the audience. Organizations that do a good job of that don't really have to worry so much about the impact of external criticism, because they live that relationship with their stakeholders every single day.