Handling Negative Sentiment Like a Pro

When your business stakes a claim in the digital world, it’s likely that eventually you’ll have to deal with negative sentiment from disgruntled customers or users. Even if you run the most on-the-ball company in the world, eventually someone’s going to be unhappy with you. Them’s the breaks. You hope it’s nothing too major, you handle it with integrity, and you move on.

However, sometimes you screw up and get called on it. Unless you move quickly and carefully, today’s negative sentiment can quickly snowball out of control through social media, blogs, and digital word of mouth. So how do you handle it like a pro?

We have two recent examples that you may have already heard of: Kickstarter and the “Seduction Manual” Debacle, and Adecco and the “Around the World in 80 Jobs” Fiasco. These are very different cases, but in both instances, the company in question messed up, the public reacted loudly, and spokespeople responded to the allegations.

But one succeeded, and one did not. What was the difference?


First, let’s talk about Kickstarter. Last week, a Kickstarter user uncovered someone trying to fund a “seduction manual” that seemed relatively gross-but-benign on its fundraising page, but further digging uncovered passages that were appalling at best, encouraging violence against women at worst. The Internet reacted fast, but not fast enough. The discovery was made only hours before the project was funded, and it went through.

So what did Kickstarter do? Did they ignore the complaints? Hand-wave it away, claiming “free speech” or “creative freedom?” No. They issued an authentic, genuine apology in which they explained that they were wrong to let such a project go through. They won the negative sentiment game, not through weaseling out of it, but through facing it head on. We’ll discuss what they did right in a moment.


Now let’s talk about Adecco. This was an instance of a company lifting the personal brand of a successful young blogger and using it for financial gain. The blogger attempted to contact the company and reach an agreement, but was waved away. So he took to the Internet and wrote about the undermining of his livelihood by a billion-dollar company. The response on the company’s Facebook page was overwhelming.

What did Adecco do? They hand-waved. They condescended. They used typical marketing spin-doctoring to issue a “we’re sorry that you feel the need to post negative remarks on our page” pseudo-apology. And people weren’t having it. The issue is still ongoing, so only time will tell if they’ll recover from this stumble, but at the time of this writing, they’ve only dug themselves deeper.

What was the difference? How did one company manage negative sentiment so well while the other fell on their face?

1)      Use an authentic tone. Don’t try to spin the negativity or pass the buck elsewhere. Consumers have finely-tuned BS meters and will call you on inauthentic sentiment that plainly says, “We think you’re all whiners and we’re just trying to shut you up.”

2)      Tell everyone what you’re going to do to fix it. It’s one thing to say, “yeah, we screwed up, our bad” and offer no follow-up. It’s another thing entirely to list out exactly why the screw-up happened and what you’re going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

3)      Be transparent. Kickstarter removed the offending page, but they kept a cached version so that users could still use it for reference. Nothing will burn you in people’s eyes faster than deleting comments, removing pages without reference, or otherwise trying to control the sentiment. People have a voice on the web, and they want to be heard. They’ve already taken a several dozen screenshots, anyway.

4)      Make amends. While Kickstarter couldn’t take back the money that funded the project, they could donate a larger amount to an anti-sexual violence organization. And they did. Meanwhile, Adecco appears to be trying to find a way to pay as little as possible to get out of their mess.

5)      Take personal responsibility. No one wants to hear about your scapegoat. Your company is ultimately responsible, and you’re who they want to hear an apology from. Don’t backpedal. Stand your ground for doing what’s right.

The Golden Rule applies with negative sentiment just as it applies to anything else: treat people the way you’d like to be treated [by a business]. Above all, know that you can’t make everybody happy… but you can make MOST people happy. This all seems like common sense, but so many companies still get it wrong. Don’t be one of them.

Stephanie Wargin is the Social Media Strategist at Zenergy Works, a web design and SEO company located in Santa Rosa, California. She creates digital media campaigns for a variety of clients to better optimize their social media properties. Her friends like to brush her hair into her eyes whenever she talks about Facebook.

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