The Zen Way to Deal with Negative Commentary Online

A Guest Post by Shama Kabani


When someone calls my company for the first time, there’s a high probability that what triggered the phone call is a negative consumer-written review or blog posting that shows up first in search engine rankings for their business.

Usually, they want to know how we can make the negative review go away – right now. It’s a shock when I say that the search engine ‘bots can’t distinguish between a snarky teenager in Des Moines, a competitor in Dallas, and a thoughtful reviewer in Dubuque. The truth is that social media has given a voice to anyone who wants to attack your business, and there are people out there who seem to revel in attacking for any reason – or no reason at all.

Sometimes the negative complaints are valid, and sometimes they’re not. So if you’re getting bashed in an online forum, the first rule is to respond to the negative consumer-generated review publicly, honestly, and as quickly as possible. Don’t even think about creating an alias to respond to a negative online posting. You will get caught, and it will cause more damage to your reputation. Here’s what I tell anyone who is wondering how to handle a negative online review:

  1. Check the facts. Is this person a customer? A former or current employee? A competitor spreading rumor?
  2. a. Once you know the facts, offer to resolve any issues personally, via email or telephone. (This requires the company owner, or a senior manager.)
    b. Continue the discussion offline if possible – then, once it is resolved, go back to the site where the negative review was posted, and post an honest explanation of what was done to rectify the issue.
    c. If you can’t identify the person, and you are not sure the complaint is valid, post your policy on the subject, and offer to resolve the issue.

  3. Follow your mother’s advice. Mind your manners, and if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. Online mudslinging never helps. If someone is posting personal slurs, be sure that YOU stay on the high road – don’t sink to their level.
  4. Rally the troops: encourage friends and satisfied customers or clients to post positive reviews.

Not long ago, after a speech to a business group, a man told me how he had put my advice to work. It’s a perfect example of what I call the Zen way of handling this kind of issue.

“I wanted to tell you how I resolved a problem I was having with a really bad online review on Yelp about my business. Someone – I never did figure out who – posted a terrible review – and that was the first thing people saw when they did a Google search on our company name.

“So I got my own Yelp account. I used my own name, and identified myself as the owner of the store. I basically said, ‘I’m saddened that you had a bad experience in my store. I’ve checked my records, and I can’t find a transaction that sounds like this. Please call me at this number, so that I can resolve this issue immediately.’ No one called, so a few weeks later I posted a second reply that said, ‘I haven’t heard from you. Please call me. I want the chance to make you a happy customer.’

“I used my real name, our store name, and posted the store phone number. At the same time, when I would talk to a satisfied customer, I’d say, ‘I’d appreciate it if you’d consider telling other people that you had a positive experience.’ I even put a request for positive Yelp reviews onto the receipts we give to customers. That first terrible review is still out there – but now there are more positive reviews, and the search engines don’t pick that bad review up first.”

One question that comes up often from frustrated small business owners is what to do if you find out about a negative comment that has “gone viral” (when one original negative message has been picked up far and wide, and a small problem has spread all over the Internet). Again, the action you should take depends on whether or not the negatives are true.

Products break. Employees don’t follow policy. Bad things happen to good companies – and they survive. The key to recovery is an honest response to the problem that explains what happened, and why it won’t happen again. If the problem isn’t simple, or if it wasn’t an isolated occurrence, consider hiring a crisis communication expert with specific online experience.

If it’s not true, politely request that the blog, forum, or site owner remove or retract the untrue information — or at least publish your response. Work with a search engine optimization (SEO) consultant to help you move positive information towards the top of search-engine rankings.

In very rare cases, business owners can seek legal help – libel laws do apply to online media. This is a last resort, and should be considered only in a very extreme case. First, it’s difficult and expensive because of the many steps required to identify the individual who posted the negative information.

More importantly, you can be sure that the minute a letter arrives from the lawyer, the news of “the big bad company” coming after “the poor citizen journalist” will be spread far and wide, further damaging your reputation. I can think of very few occasions when legal action has helped resolve this kind of problem, but being married to an attorney, I leave this question open, and welcome any feedback from someone who has successfully used legal action in this kind of situation.

Becoming an active part of the conversation that is already taking place among your customers, employees, prospects, and competitors is the best way to prevent negative comments from taking over your online reputation. This is especially critical for professional service businesses, where the company’s inventory and the company’s reputation are one and the same.

Take advantage of the free tools available to monitor your company’s online reputation. Start by signing up for Google and Yahoo email alerts using your company name, product name, and the names of key executives Yahoo Alerts and google alerts. Look at other tools like Ice Rocket, Monitor This, PubSub, and Blog Pulse.

While you’re figuring out where the conversation about your business and your competitors is taking place, establish a policy on how you are going to handle your part of the ongoing conversation. Who will speak for your company? How are you going to encourage satisfied customers and friends to speak positively about you?

It’s no longer a question of whether or not social media is going to affect your business – it already is. So the only question is when are you going to take charge of your own online reputation?


Shama Kabani is president of The Marketing Zen Group, and author of The Zen of Social Media Marketing, which hits store shelves this week. You’ll find her on Twitter as @Shama

Thanks, Shama! I find that the more we include folks in what we’re doing online from the start, the more we invite them to help us as we build our presence and our sites, the more we find they help us when those negative occasions crop up.

How do you handle negative remarks and comments when you find them online?

–ME “Liz” Strauss
Work with Liz on your business!!

Buy the ebook. Learn the art of online conversation.

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  1. says

    Excellent advice here from Shama!

    We were recently discussing this very topic, “Dealing With Negative Comments and Publicity Online,” on New England Multimedia’s blog (clickable from my name), after launching a discussion on our Facebook Page about the Nestle vs. Greenpeace social media war. The community manager for Nestle’s Facebook Page was confronted with negative attacks against Nestle because of palm oil harvesting, and the ensuing firestorm was fanned by bloggers who immediately began dissecting it.

    Your blog post here outlines what everyone else has been saying — beginning with having the right person speaking on your business’s behalf in the first place!

    Michelle Quillin for New England Multimedia & Q Web Consulting

  2. says

    Hello! I think that this post is very interesting. To have bad reviews is something that can hurt a lot and anyone can lost the nerves in these situations. I think that the advices that you give us are good and interestings!


  3. says

    So very true. A bad mention in something like facebook takes more than a couple dollars in advertising to overcome. People truly do have the power, and the internet has given it to them in a whole new light. Thanks for the interesting read.

  4. says

    Hi Shama,
    Great approach to dealing with negative commentary online. Ultimately, we will be defined and remembered for how we respond to such commentary. The cream does rise to the top :)


  5. says

    So true. Minding our manners can be tough, especially when our faces are hidden behind a computer screen. We have to treat a mean person with respect, even if this person is never softened by our kind approach. Other potential customers will see our honest, respectful response and be more likely to trust us.

  6. says

    Great points, Shama! But what would you recommend in the case of a person posting negative comments under a false name on one of those extortion sites like ripoff report? Adding a thoughtful, business owner response to that would lend your credible name to what is, in essence, a fraud. Have you run across this before?

  7. says

    Hi All!
    Having a cool head before you start and being aware of the larger audience is always good advice.

    When the negative comments come, always address them with gracious candor the way you might with someone in person. That doesn’t mean admitting to something you didn’t do. It might mean inviting someone a special offer or a refund they don’t necessarily deserve.

    The most important part of reputation is letting folks know that you can be trusted when the going gets rough.

  8. says

    Michelle – Excellent point and great example. Having a spokesperson never went out of fashion. = )

    Raquel – Thank you. = )

    Patrick – Yes, and like all power – it has to be used CAREFULLY.

    Adrian – I’ve always loved that saying. This defines us as a society.

    Terez – You hit a key point. It can be so easy to forget that behind every screen name is a REAL human being.

    Suzi – That is a tough situation. Yes, I would still urge business owners to respond. Because an outsider wouldn’t know it is fake. Communication is the only answer. You can always say – pls allow us to solve this. State your case. If they have to case to state – then it becomes obvious to the reader that is it a made up review.

    Liz makes an excellent point. Use graceful candor. You don’t have to be “refund central” – you do have to communicate and be available.

    Thank you all for your wonderful and insightful comments.

  9. says

    Shama, and Liz, fantastic advice and timely, too. I’ve just written a post on the subject and intend to address it during a presentation in May. Thanks for sharing this. Best, CB

    • says

      Glad to know you stopped by. I’m sure you had it all handled without our help, but it’s great to know that we’re doing fine.
      Feel free to come back and leave a link to your post here for everyone to enjoy!

  10. says

    Hello Shama.

    As usual, great advise coming from you. Most of the companies (big, mid-sized) still work with the mindset that the flow of information rests in the hands of very few. This myth is being shattered by social media in particular and the Internet in general. Some companies are aware of this new development but have no clue how to deal with it, or leverage its reach.

    I remember a few months ago I had posted on Twitter something like, “Are all guys in xyz bank trained crooks?” A response on Twitter, after more than a month, was something like, “Thanks for your feedback, it’s been a pleasure serving you.” :-) And this is a major bank in India.

  11. says

    Great post! As a small business internet marketing consultant, I receive calls from hysterical clients that received a bad review somewhere.

    The advice you give is right on mark. Unfortunately, many bad reviews come from competitors trying to trash them.

    Using the advice given here there is a good chance the business owner can actually turn the negative into a positive in the eyes of the reader.

    Thanks for the great advice!

  12. says

    This is awesome advice.

    I have a client who has been unfairly attacked by either competitors or haters so this will be good reading. I wish there was a way that you could request that Google take down untrue comments but as far as I know there is not, and they will do nothing to help these businesses. Your advice is sound though.

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