In The Art of War Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist and philosopher, makes this astute observation:
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
Critics can, at times, seem like enemies of an organization and the marketplace a battlefield.
Knowing your organization—namely the mission, vision and values it holds near and dear—and being committed to defending them is what makes companies authentic. There is a cost to standing firm in the face of aggressive opposition, but there’s an even greater long-term cost for failing to do so.
Understanding what makes your critics tick is vital, which is why it’s important to learn all you can about them by discerning their perceptions of the company, understanding what motives them and gaining insight into their beliefs.
With this information in hand, it’s time to consider how an organization can effectively deal with its critics.
One of the best pieces of public relations advice I’ve ever received came early in my career from a vice president of corporate communications. His employer, a large international business, was routinely the target of criticism, so he had a lot of experience in this area.
- His advice was simple yet spot-on: Divide your critics into two groups, the reasonable and the unreasonable.
GROUP ONE, the reasonable critics, are people who have legitimate concerns and make constructive criticism in an effort to bring about improvement. Work with them.
These are people with whom the organization should try to find common ground and accommodate whenever possible, provided the organization doesn’t compromise its values. If it has made a mistake, apologize and take corrective action. Sometimes, reasonable critics can even be won over to become allies and ultimately fans. They can make us better if we listen to them and work with them to find win-win solutions.
GROUP TWO, the unreasonable critics, are never going to be happy no matter what you do. Ignore them.
These critics 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. Their operative word is “more” – and ironically, no matter how much “more” your organization offers, it will never be enough. These critics thrive on attention and intimidating those with whom they disagree.
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 resources with endless debates and accusations, and no matter what you say or do, they’ll still criticize you.
An initial response to a complaint or inquiry is appropriate, especially if it is made through social media where anyone online can see what has been said. Being unresponsive makes a company look bad and uncaring, and silence can give the perception of guilt. At the same time, there are advocacy groups and bloggers who relish yanking corporate chains and putting companies in a spin.
Once you have attempted to engage a critic and found that person to be unreasonable, the best thing to do is simply ignore future criticism from that individual or group. 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 your organization.
Handling the situation with a courteous reply that doesn’t gloss over the complaint is likely to give reasonable readers a favorable impression of your company and help them see the unreasonable critic for what he/she really is—unreasonable.
Don Beehler is a public relations consultant in Franklin, Tennessee.