Should You Respond To Negative Criticism?

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Photo: Sam Howzit via Flickr

Your top competitor just tweeted that your product underperforms compared to theirs. A reporter didn’t like your SXSW party. A competitor tells a lie about one of your employees to a prospect. A disgruntled employee starts blogging about why he was “laid off.” Ann Coulter says that radiation is actually good for us.Should you respond? There’s no easy answer, and it depends on the situation. Here’s my viewpoint on when to take the bait, when to throw the first stone, and when to think twice.

How it Can Hurt You

Losing it in any public forum makes you look crazy

Celebrities have given us a long list of examples of what not to do: Chris Brown’s recent interview on Good Morning America that reportedly resulted in a broken window, Tom Cruise’s accusation that Matt Lauer doesn’t know the history of psychiatry, or Dennis Green’s rant about “they are who we thought they were!”

Acknowledgment can embolden passionate critics

If someone has attacked you in a cruel way, a response is rarely helpful. Regardless of your amazingly compelling rebuttal, you will inevitably write something that will fuel additional missives. If you stay silent, the originator of the negative comment will lack the confidence that comes from any kind of response – be it positive or negative.

Responding can pull you into the fray

The fray is a sticky place to be, so if you must respond, stay above it. Point by point rebuttals rarely work, so stick to the higher-level issues at hand. Answer the question that should have been asked in the first place and change the discussion to the one you want to be having. Above all, do not take a defensive posture and welcome a spirited debate.

How it Can Work for You

Fact based offensives that make you laugh

Wendy’s famous “Where’s the beef” commercials made us all think twice about the size of competing hamburgers. Apple’s “I’m a Mac” ads that portray PCs as unhip also got a lot of buzz in a good way. Both campaigns used humour to demonstrate a shortfall of the competition and it worked beautifully. They used facts as the basis and focused on things that consumers probably already knew, and would find humorous if positioned properly. This is a delicate balance that requires careful testing, but when done well, it can be incredibly powerful.

Causes need fuel for their fires

Although widely criticised for their tenor, political campaigns frequently go negative. And it works. Psychology Today’s R. Michael Alvarez writes that, “By threatening voters, by making them anxious, afraid, and fearful, candidates can win elections.”

Who can forget Michael Dukakis sitting in the tank or the Swift boat ads against John Kerry? No matter which side of the aisle you agree with, it’s hard to argue with the power of these ads to sway public opinion. Social causes also use negative rhetoric to rally supporters. Think about the PETA supporters who throw red paint designed to look like blood on women wearing fur coats or anti-abortion activists who display imagery of aborted fetuses. We all remember these, and they serve the important goal of galvanizing and expanding their base of supporters.

The bottom line? Remember that online, memory is short. Thanks to Google and the brevity of Twitter, negative comments come and go very quickly. Adding content to the debate will only extend the life of the topic through search engine results. Before fueling your search results with rebuttals to negative comments, consider the consequences carefully. Your best course of action just might be to start filling in the search results with positive content that furthers your corporate mission and point of view.

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