More than a few years back, we had a client that had an aversion to social media. A small government agency, it was intrigued by the idea of being able to post its news directly to its constituencies on platforms like Facebook and Twitter. After all, such tools were changing – and have changed – the face of public relations and put several target-seeking arrows into the PR quiver. But when the agency realized that citizens would be able to comment on its otherwise oh-so-positive news, it put on the brakes, recoiling over the prospect of John Q. Public not responding with the appropriate hosannas.
But then it had another thought: what if it just deleted the negative comments as soon as they were posted? Perhaps marrying that defensive strategy with its offensive one would do the trick.
No, it wouldn’t. And, in fact, the U.S. Court of Appeals recently said as much. It ruled in favor of a Virginia citizen gadfly who had been critical of a local elected official on her Facebook page, only to find himself subsequently blocked from continuing to post on it. President Trump is involved in a similar case for muting critics on his Twitter feed. Back in May, the court ruled that he couldn’t block his critics. In both cases, the defendants argued that their accounts were personal and do not belong to the government, and so they should be free to run them as they please.
The court obviously did not agree. As reported by Ann E. Marimow in The Washington Post, the head of Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection explained the ruling this way: “A platform has been created in which the government can’t allow the voices it likes and silence the ones it doesn’t like.”
The credibility that comes with criticism
Even so, there’s a broader issue at play here, not simply as a matter of free speech. Criticism has become part and parcel to our online culture, and I would suggest an authenticating part at that. When I am checking reviews of products – especially ones whose claims I am a bit leery of – my antenna goes up when I am presented with nothing but rave, 5-star encomiums. Believable? Maybe, but the way I figure it, even penicillin would have gotten some 3- or 4-star reviews had it first been introduced on Amazon. (“It cured my rash but that the orange flavor was too sweet! Three stars.”)
[Skip to the comment section of this article on a weight-loss supplement. All positive reviews. (And btw if you click on the names, there are no links to actual Facebook pages.) Now compare those raves with this Consumer Reports article that asserts the product does not work. The online posts just smack of “too good to be true.”]
Contrition and community
It’s only logical that an online community would not conform to one set of opinions, and criticisms – either by a perennial crank or someone who just had a singular bad experience – are to be expected. Negative posts must be put into the proper context. First, take a step back and objectively assess whether the commenter has a legitimate point. If he does, then acknowledge as much. Online apologies go a long way toward setting the ship right again. The way you respond to criticism will say as much about you than that customer’s bad experience. Now, if the criticism is not justified, what happens naturally and quite often is that your community (i.e. satisfied customers) will come to your defense, and that wave of support provides an exponential validation of your brand.
No one likes criticism, but the answer to dealing with it is not to shut down Facebook or restrict incoming comments. Think of social media platforms as communications arenas. Understanding the dynamics at play is the key to responding in ways that keep your brand credible and real.