Disarming Social Media Attacks

[Editor’s note: The following is a great example of real-life crisis management methods used by PR pro Karl Robe to cope with an unrelenting upset customer that took her complaints to social media and beyond.]

Dealing with problem stakeholders on social media

A national retailer client of Karl James & Company faced relentless online criticism from a consumer with a record of shaking down businesses on social media. The consumer turned to Facebook with baseless claims to secure compensation. All attempts to resolve the issue were ineffective. Anything short of meeting outrageous monetary demands was rejected by the disgruntled consumer.

Below is some of the public relations counsel Karl James offered this particular client followed by some sample messages used to counteract the online attacks.

  • If your brand or organization is attacked online, remember: power comes from communicating positively, constructively, and directly with those that matter.
  • Compare the benefits of refusing the monetary demands of these individuals with the cost of countering their online attacks and the reputational damage. Determine if it is worth paying the demands, stopping the online complaints, and stemming the money and time spent on this individual.
  • If the opposition proposes some sensible ideas, quickly incorporate these into your plans. This will suck energy out of their position and leave them with the more outlandish and less acceptable positions. Communicate on social media about your adoption of their ideas and your appreciation of their input.
  • Convert the negative energy opponents and critics need to be powerful into simple, sensible, positive, and constructive actions. Opposition is created and empowered by being ignored, vilified, or attacked. While counter intuitive to winning this situation, constant communication in response to opposing factions wins the day, albeit over time. It is slower, often irritating, and apparently contradictory but, if applied relentlessly, it is powerful and ultimately gives the best opportunity for success.

When communicating with online attackers, we recommend:

  • Publicly answering every question/statement raised by the attacker. Without a response, these remain the only frame of reference for other readers to form their perceptions.
  • Document and publish your requests and their refusals to work with you.
  • Realize this is a dynamic situation that requires ongoing monitoring and immediate attention, strategies and messaging made on a case by case basis. More comments already are showing up from other customers linked to the original complainants and likely will grow.
  • Realize the attacker is not going away and likely will continue to bombard Facebook.
  • Overtime, through actively counteracting each attack, you form a public record of engagement and paint a picture of trust and responsiveness with current and potential customers.
  • At this point, we would not recommend you pursue a strategy of removing the attacker’s comments and banning the attacker from engaging on Facebook.
  • We would recommend ongoing, online engagement designed to turn complaints into opportunities to illustrate your brand and all it promises.
  • Prior to moving forward with any public relations campaign to counteract online attacks always involve legal counsel too.

Sample Messaging

As you will see in the following series of public relations messages, each was designed to counter an unfounded claim made online while demonstrating brand commitment. By addressing each false claim, the retailer builds a public record of its willingness to serve its customers well. It also dissuades other false claims from being made by future opportunists by seeing the responsiveness of this retailer to online attacks. Finally, responding to each claim turns an attack on its brand into an opportunity to move its brand from mere words to words that demonstrate action that illustrate a retailer committed to living its brand. All of this builds credibility and trust. Both translate to prospects more easily transitioning into customers, as well as reassuring existing customers in their belief and loyalty to the retailer’s brand.

Message 1

Ms. Smith, thank you for the opportunity to work with you in assuring we continue to provide exceptional customer service to the tens of thousands who trust us. We recognize and value all input received about our performance. In fact, we appreciate your tenacity in ensuring we deliver on our promises. Your correspondence with the Better Business Bureau and our responses to their inquiries provided a public forum with an independent, unbiased consumer protection agency. We are proud to report the Better Business Bureau—after reviewing our responses to all of your correspondence—closed the case without further action. We sincerely appreciate your interest in helping us remain the trusted source for all your needs.

Message 2

Ms. Smith, we are pleased to have responded to your dozens of phone calls placed to our corporate offices as well as to our local franchise owner. Even though the Better Business Bureau, for a second time, has reviewed the case and closed it without further action, we welcome the opportunity to discuss further your position on this matter. To ensure you reach the appropriate person within our organization, we respectfully ask you to contact John James, director of operations, at (555) 555-5555. By contacting him directly, you will be certain to get the appropriate person to discuss this matter. Thank you again for your interest in helping us remain the trusted source for your needs.

Message 3

Ms. Smith, we were glad to return your call within 5 minutes on January 5. As we discussed, the significant wear and lack of annual maintenance over the course of many years of equipment ownership understandably created numerous issues within your equipment. We were pleased to work within your budget and even provide additional service as part of our commitment to building relationships with our customers. We certainly respect your feelings resulting from your investing in fixing those initial items that were within your budget, but then having a different issue—not part of our work on your equipment—develop afterward. We empathize with and respect your feelings in this matter, and we hope to see you more often to ensure your equipment is maintained on a regular basis.

Karl James & Company works with clients all over the United States. With offices in Chicago and Milwaukee, Karl Robe, APR, founded Karl James & Company in 1999. Visit www.karljames.com for more public relations insights.

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