Whenever your agency represents a company that has even a hint of controversy attached to it, you can be sure that critics are just around the corner waiting to pounce. Or, maybe the company is hiring your agency because critics have already declared a full-scale war, and it needs help fending off attacks.
Sometimes even a handful of vocal and motivated critics can give companies a headache, especially if they are adept at using social media and know how make themselves appear to be greater in number than they really are.
Early in my public relations career, I attended a seminar where the vice president of corporate communications for a company that routinely was the target of critics discussed how he handled his job in such an environment. He explained that he divided the company’s critics into two groups: the reasonable and the unreasonable.
“Critics are our friends, they show us our faults.”
― Benjamin Franklin
The reasonable critics are people who have legitimate concerns and make constructive criticism in an effort to bring about improvement. These are individuals an organization can and should work with whenever possible. Sometimes, reasonable critics can even be won over to become allies. They can make us better if we listen to them and work with them to find common ground and win-win solutions.
“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”
― Elbert Hubbard
The unreasonable critics are never going to be happy, no matter what you do. They will be suspicious of your motives if you try to work with them, and any action you take will be found to be deficient in some way. Regardless of what they might say, they have no interest in having a dialogue about the issues and working with you. In their eyes, the company is Darth Vader in corporate form. These critics thrive on attention and the thrill of the battle.
You can waste a lot of time and energy dealing with unreasonable critics, and at the end of the day nothing will have changed. Plus, by trying to dialogue with them, you risk elevating their profile and giving them more credibility than they deserve. This is especially true in the age of social media, where critics can be relentless and exceedingly nasty online. They tie up company time and resources with endless debates and accusations, and no matter what you say or do, they’ll still hate your client or cause.
What to do with unreasonable critics? I suggest an initial response to a complaint or inquiry, especially if it is made through social media where anyone online can see what is being said. Being unresponsive makes a company look bad and uncaring, but at the same time there are advocacy groups and bloggers who relish yanking corporate chains and putting companies in a spin.
Part of the challenge of dealing with critics is not knowing whether a first-time complainer belongs in the reasonable or unreasonable camp.
To be on the safe side, assume the critic is reasonable and will be satisfied with corrective facts, a valid explanation or a sincere apology if you’ve messed up. If the critic belongs in the unreasonable camp, you’ll know soon enough by the follow-up responses you get.
Once you have identified an unreasonable critic and you’ve attempted to engage the critic—without success—the best thing to do is simply ignore future criticism from that person. Not only will you save a lot of time and grief, but posting a rational response that is rebuffed by an irrational person may actually help you. Your response will satisfy the majority of rational people, give them a favorable impression of your company and help them see the unreasonable critic for what he/she really is—unreasonable.