How to Respond When Your Company is Being Criticized Online

Social media is a tremendously powerful force – but it is equally delicate, and fickle. Making the right moves can earn you a loyal following, increasing your audience reach and giving you a solid advertising platform for years at a time. Take a wrong step, however, and that audience can turn on you in a moment, dragging your brand through the mud for all to see. And for most companies, it’s not even an option anymore to stay off of social media, lest you be forgotten and overshadowed by your more visible competitors.

Social media has the influence to make (and break) a generation of YouTube stars whose audience reach is wider than that of established network TV show hosts. It can help elect presidents, move a #BoycottStarbucks hashtag to the top of Twitter’s trending list, and get a top-rated TV show cancelled.

When an established brand makes a grave mistake on social media, they often blame the intern that posted the unpopular message. But with so much riding on each company’s ability to strike the right note, social media posting should no longer be left to interns at all. Indeed, as the company’s most prominent face to the world, your social media manager should be carefully trained to navigate these new waters with skill, charisma, good humor, and a deep dedication to the concept of ownership. This last feature is the hardest to learn, but when the going gets tough, it is also the most important.

“I can resist everything – except temptation.”

The quote above is from Oscar Wilde, but it could well be on the tombstones of many companies that have set fire to their own brands because they could not hold back from the temptation to dodge responsibility when things go wrong.

The current information economy thrives on attention; companies want it, but so does everyone else, including journalists, trolls, and ordinary critics. At times, it may even seem like they are waiting for you to slip up, so that they can post tweets and articles about how outraged they are. They’ll bait you and dare you to respond, twisting your words when you do. It turns out those smooth waters you’re swimming in are home to a swarm of crocodiles, and you’ll need a great deal of talent and good fortune to get out of there in one piece.

The irony is that companies already know how to respond, although the novelty of the situation often blinds them to what they know. It’s true that there is no rulebook for how to answer a deluge of memes and .GIFs that mock you and everything you stand for, but it’s also true that the principles of good leadership have remained essentially the same through the course of history, across cultures as well as time periods. The only question is whether you will rediscover them in time.

By keeping the following rules in mind, you’ll have a strong point of reference in case you begin to panic, and you’ll be in a much better position to handle online criticism when it comes.


  1. If the criticism is true, just admit it. The best way to put a mistake behind you is to admit that it happened, explain why it happened, apologize for it, and announce the steps you are taking to ensure that it does not happen again. Obviously there can be exceptions here; if you are in the middle of a court case, for example, you may not be able to comment freely on the events in question. But even apart from basic decency and ethical obligation, the logic of this strategy is simple: putting everything on the table for all to see disarms your critics because they have nothing to add beyond what you have already admitted to, and they have nothing to hold over your head either, because the issue is settled.

    A good example is the recent decision by ABC to cancel their #1 sitcom Roseanne, after several particularly odious tweets sent by the star of that show. The accompanying statement (see link) made no excuses for Roseanne Barr’s behavior at all – a crucial detail, as we will see in a moment – and saved ABC’s family-friendly brand.

    Roseanne herself took a slightly different approach, which did not turn out well for her.

At first glance, her apology seems reasonable and thorough enough. She is certainly not justifying the tweets themselves; she calls them egregious and indefensible, and says “I made a mistake” which was “unforgiveable” [sic]. But she gave in to the temptation – just a little bit! – to point out that she was on Ambien (a sleep medication) at the time she sent her original offensive tweets.

The internet caught her attempting this evasive maneuver, and focused on it so heavily that the rest of her apology was almost immediately forgotten. “Ambien” spent the rest of the day trending on Twitter, and the day’s news stories were about how Roseanne Barr tried to deflect responsibility by blaming sleeping pills for her racist language.

Ambien’s manufacturer responded shortly thereafter:

This tongue-in-cheek response was exactly what the internet was waiting for: Perfectly deadpan delivery, a defense of the product itself, and a subtle mockery of the implication that it could be blamed for Roseanne Barr’s bad behavior. Roseanne instantly became a national punch line, and left Twitter in disgrace.

There is no way to know what would have happened if Roseanne Barr had taken full ownership of her offensive tweets, both recently and in the more distant past. But by making excuses, even if only lightly, she dragged out the humiliation in exactly the way that ABC didn’t. No doubt the network was tempted to find a way to keep the highly profitable show on the air, but doing so would have meant an avoidance of responsibility that the situation didn’t warrant. Just four words – “I was ambien tweeting” – ended any hope of Roseanne Barr digging herself out of the hole she’d created.


2. Don’t try to minimize the mistake. Last year, United Airlines overbooked a flight and couldn’t get anyone to volunteer to give up their seat. So they asked the police to handle the situation for them – incidentally, another unwise deflection of responsibility. Police officers soon moved in and dragged a doctor off the plane in cruel fashion, striking his head against an armrest and creating a nightmarish scene. The moment was caught on video and uploaded to social media, setting off a firestorm of criticism against the company.

United Airlines released the following statement in an attempt to calm the situation:


That statement made everything much, much worse. Note how it begins: The word “us” as the focus of the first sentence, as though the company itself was the victim of the attack. And then the word “re-accommodate”, as though that were a fair description of what the uproar was about. The entire message has the wrong tone for an apology: “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers” sounds an awful lot like the clichéd and flippant “I’m sorry if you were offended” non-apology that can also be found all around the internet.

Once again, the temptation to avoid responsibility was there, and the company took it. Euphemisms simply will not work in a situation where the world has already seen a shocking video of the events in question. They would have been better advised to own up to what happened, really apologize for it, and explain what they were doing to ensure that it does not happen again. United Airlines was too proud to accept responsibility, and this weakness helped cost them an estimated $800 million in just a few days.

By contrast, a decade ago JetBlue suffered a system-wide failure that should have been, on the merits, worse than how United Airlines acted in the situation just described. Its response has been hailed as a masterpiece of corporate apology – 5 paragraphs of direct, humble, and appropriately sober prose that explained exactly what happened and why it would never happen again. Far from wrecking the company, this one-page letter might have saved it. People who decided they would never trust JetBlue again after such a horrible travel experience, soon changed their minds after reading such a disarmingly frank apology letter.

As business advisors Jocko Willink and Leif Babin point out: “If you get your ego in your way, you will only look to other people and circumstances to blame .… Ownership requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility. Admitting mistakes, taking ownership, and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any successful team.” The JetBlue apology letter was flawless in this area, which is why it succeeded in winning back the trust of the public.

While this principle of taking ownership was originally designed for the workplace itself, it ends up being doubly true on social media, where users are even more highly sensitive to nuances in language. If you make a mistake in either your original behavior or your later PR outreach, you will find that scores of loud social media users are motivated to call you out on your mistake. An attempt to point fingers at other people or at outside forces will be instantly detected and turned against you.


3. Don’t double down unless you’re really sure. There was no chance of writing this blog post without mentioning the infamous episode surrounding Amy’s Baking Company. Rather than deflect or evade responsibility for a long list of horrendous management decisions caught on video, the epic duo of Samy and Amy decided it would be a better idea to use foul language and threats to go on the attack against their critics. It was not.

Trying to fight the internet on its own turf is not a wise move.

But hang on a second. What if you’re right? What if you’re being targeted with accusations that simply aren’t fair? What if you detach emotionally and take a step back from the situation, and still genuinely feel that the accusers are on the wrong side of history, and you have nothing to be ashamed of?

If you’re really, really sure that you’re ready to die on this hill, then go for it. But be careful. Always be at least two steps higher on the politeness scale than each accuser you respond to. Explain clearly your thought process, fill in the facts that your interlocutors may not be aware of, and be generous to them when you interpret their complaints. Your goal isn’t to humiliate them, but to reach out to them. And if they can’t be reached, then understand that your interaction with them will nevertheless be seen by thousands of others who can be convinced, and that whatever happens will be archived on the internet for all eternity. Now is most certainly not the time to type with haste or emotion – and definitely don’t do it while you’re on Ambien.


4. If you didn’t do anything wrong, don’t enter the fight. In 2016, Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted the following as a way of saying that accepting refugees into a country means accepting a certain amount of risk:


A clumsy metaphor, an emotional issue, and a highly complex problem all fell into Skittles’ lap, and all eyes looked toward the company to see how it would respond. Would it cite statistics related to refugees and the violence plaguing their home countries? Would it make a general appeal to global brotherhood? Would it deflect the issue and say how safe Skittles were to eat?

This is how the company responded when pressed by a member of the media:


On such a polarizing issue, the company saw no positive outcome for itself from any potential stance or statement. As a result, its careful reply boiled down to: Thank you, but this has nothing to do with us.

It was the right response. The company may have feelings one way or the other about the immigration debate, but it gains nothing by walking directly into a cultural tornado. It even made the wise decision to avoid saying something neutral like, “we don’t know what the truth about refugees is.” That claim would have surely been met with thousands of facts, statistics, images and videos in response from both sides, all of them saying, “Ok, here’s the evidence; now you know, so we’re expecting to hear your comment.” Skittles didn’t start the controversy, so it has no duty to try to resolve it.

In all of the examples listed above, the common theme is that what to say is just as important as how to say it. In all corporate communication, it’s important to sense the mood of the audience, and try to meet them where they are. If the audience is feeling sad or frustrated, the tone of the response should convey that we understand how sad or frustrated you must be feeling right now. If the audience is angry, we can respond with a subtext of you’re right to feel angry at us.

After that initial connection is made at an emotional level, we can redirect their emotions to a more positive place. We understand that we let you down, and we are sorry. We promised prompt service, and we failed to deliver on that promise. To ensure that this never happens again, we have already installed a backup system that will keep our database working even when the primary system is inactive. We have also implemented a 24-hr customer support channel to assist you right away if you have any further difficulties, or give you an immediate refund if we can’t fix the problem. We began our company in 1999 with the single goal of providing the best possible service to customers like you, and it is my personal mission to give you the support you deserve, and work hard to win back your trust once more. Yours sincerely, John Smith, CEO.

In cases of mistaken outrage, humor can be the best weapon to parry an attack. Whatever the situation, remember always that the task is to deflect anger, not accountability. This is the heart of ownership – the simple idea that you are responsible for what happens in your company.

People are naturally cynical of businesses that seek profit and offload responsibility while simultaneously posing as innocent providers of services and goods. When communicating with people, your company therefore needs to respect that underlying cynicism but work hard to demonstrate that it is groundless. Because you are not like other companies. You hold onto your principles, and take ownership of your actions. And that is why your statements, and social media presence, and corporate communications have meaning – and why you need not fear the loud voices of the critics and the trolls.


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