To engage, or not engage? What to do when faced with online complaints and negative comments

social media online complaints

Conventional wisdom proposes organisations should respond to online complaints swiftly, openly and with empathy. But new research suggests companies that responded publicly to negative tweets experienced a drop in stock price and a reduction in perceived brand image.

The report in Harvard Business Review concluded publicly engaging with unhappy customers can have serious adverse repercussions, especially on social media platforms where content-sorting algorithms are likely to promote complaints more heavily if brands respond to them.

The researchers said that as a result, such engagement can end up excessively amplifying negative voices, encouraging other unhappy customers to chime in and ultimately reducing the brand’s value in the eyes of both customers and investors.

Their large-scale analysis of Twitter traffic for S&P 500 companies showed the negative effects of “complaint publicisation” consistently outweighed any positive impact of signalling care for customers.

While the research may be valid and the findings are likely sound, recent cases show it’s not so easy in real life.

Consider how London North Eastern Railways (LNER) responded last month after a non-binary employee complained online when a conductor welcomed passengers on board with: “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls”. LNER chose to apologise publicly, which resulted in widespread hostile reaction and predictable outrage from some quarters about “woke management”.

Or consider what happened in New Zealand last week when an employee of hardware chain Mitre 10 made offensive comments about the cycling community, including a mention of Mitre 10, on their personal Facebook page. In response to a few public complaints, the company apologised, got the employee to apologise, and had the offending posts removed.

Mitre 10’s action was praised by some commentators, but the company’s own Facebook explanation attracted over 3,000 comments, many of them objecting to the company taking action over an employee’s personal page or claiming infringement of free comment.

As company spokesperson Anna Campbell said in response to the social media backlash: “You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t”.

While it’s not so easy to decide what is the right thing to do, it’s a lot easier to recognise what is not.

Earlier this month, furniture and electronic giant Harvey Norman came under attack for anti-worker policies and refusing to repay millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded employee subsidies during COVID lockdowns while at the same time reporting record profits.

In the face of sustained criticism on social media, the company chose to mock and then block critics. And when the PR firestorm began to rage out of control, it simply closed down its Twitter account, offering no comment or explanation. Hardly best practice crisis management by any measure.

So, what might be the right approach? Clearly, public engagement with unhappy customers isn’t always the right move. Nor is the answer just to ignore complaints.

The HBR researchers said the most successful companies in their sample generally responded to complaints with a public message inviting the customer to continue the conversation using a private channel — that is, a closed response strategy, in contrast to an open strategy which inundates a firm’s page with lengthy, often unhelpful, exchanges.

While every case and every organisation is different I suggest:

  • Take the conversation offline as quickly as possible;
  • Don’t delete critical comments — no matter how much you are tempted;
  • Be positive. Don’t take it personally;
  • Correct factual inaccuracies — firmly but politely;
  • Distinguish between genuine complaints and attention-seeking trolls;
  • Apologise only if you have something to apologise for;
  • Have an escalation process if “Plan A” isn’t working; and
  • Most importantly, remember the world is watching.

Tony Jaques is an expert on issue and crisis management and risk communication. He is CEO of Melbourne-based consultancy Issue Outcomes and his latest book is Crisis Counsel: Navigating Legal and Communication Conflict.

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