An airline has recently accomplished the feat of kicking a blind passenger off the plane because his service dog didn’t fit under the seat in from of him. When other passengers subsequently protested, the entire flight was canceled. In a media report on the incidence, the airline insisted that it did the right thing for the sake of the safety of the crew. Almost immediately, an outrage ensued on the airline’s Facebook page. So far, no response to thousands of very angry comments from the most important stakeholders of the airline: passengers. So how do you handle social media outrage?
A social media outrage can happen pretty easily. Someone is upset, shares it with friends, who will then also be upset, and in no time you have a lot of posts or tweets that attack you. This can happen in development as much as anywhere else: Imagine you are implementing a project, and someone who is affected by the project objects to it. The World Bank provides grievance mechanisms for that, such as the Inspection Panel. But it is much easier for stakeholders to vent their anger online or with friends who will then take the fight online. From them, the outrage will spread to people who have no immediate connection to the problem or incident. In no time, a large group of very angry people can be mobilized and you find yourself the target of negative commentary. This is a serious issue, whether the accusations are correct or not. These negative comments can hurt your reputation, your effectiveness, and, depending on your sector, your revenue. So how do you react? Here’s the Top 3 of the worst things you can do.
- Delete negative posts. There is no way to make things go away on social media. Deleting comments will make the commentator even angrier and will strengthen critic’s determination. People notice if their posts disappear. If they had the energy to post in the first place, they will have the energy to post again. And this time the tone will be more acrid and you will get into trouble with a whole new group of people: those who protect free speech. Deleting negative comments does give the impression that you have something to hide. In development, where transparency and accountability are big issues, that’s a major mistake.
- Ignore negative posts. It’s tempting, especially if you believe that the criticism is misplaced. Critics will not go away, but they will get louder. The low transaction cost of online engagement allows people to stick with a topic and become highly involved. Moreover, it looks bad to those stakeholders who didn’t participate in the outrage to begin with. You will seem unresponsive, uncaring, and why would I support your cause or buy your goods if you don’t care about your stakeholders?
- Engage in a discussion insisting that you are right and your stakeholders are wrong. Even worse, issue a media statement saying that you are right. It doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong. People are upset and you must respond to it respectfully. If there are concerns, there must be a reason for them. If you deny, you’re telling your stakeholders that they are stupid.
The only thing you can really do is engaging in a positive dialogue. Admit something was wrong or could have been better. Admit whatever happened is your responsibility (even if it’s not necessarily your fault). Apologize and say you will do better in the future. Say how you will do better. Invite stakeholders to make suggestions on how you could do better. By initiating a positive dialogue—a dialogue about proactive problem solving—you engage your critics and turn the discussion into something productive. That will be of use to you because you learn something. It will also increase stakeholders’ involvement with you and your cause, it will make them more familiar with both. And stronger engagement tends to mean stronger commitment.
No matter how you choose to respond to social media outrage, do not antagonize, ignore, or defy the people that your cause or business is ultimately built on.