Confuse the enemy; tell them the truth!

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How can brands handle the increasing likelihood of having to deal with hostile client feedback at some point, without being fearful of communicating at all?

It appears we have an increasingly aggressive way of communicating with one another. Nowhere is this more evident than in the relationship between the general public and  our public figures and with brands. We have greater transparency, accountability and more options for constructive feedback than ever before. Yet somehow that has morphed into an often hostile and combative environment - sometimes for good reason, but often for very minor misunderstandings, honest errors or genuinely differing opinions. So how can brands handle the increasing likelihood of having to deal with such public vilification at some point, without being fearful of communicating at all.

Public commentary - it’s role and its challenges

Courtesy of the online review platforms and social media, it is not unusual for us to see grown (and often respected) adults morph into playground bullies when faced with the opportunity of tearing a local restaurateur limb from limb in an anonymous Tripadvisor post. We see hair raising anger erupt on Facebook channels when someone doesn’t get the answer they want from a member of the customer service team, and I have seen total vitriol emerge over perfectly innocent typos. Behaviours which the writers would not dare display in a face to face situation.

I am not suggesting for a moment that individuals should not point out when something is not as it should be, or that opinions are not a welcome part of public debate or indeed brand and service development. The ability to feedback and have a say is vital for both our society and for businesses.

It’s the way and extent to which it is now done that can not only be deeply hurtful to business owners (who are human after all) but to their teams who are on the receiving end of such aggressive feedback. Above all these acts of public vitriol can be extremely damaging to both large and small independent businesses alike, to their brand images and their hard won reputations, and the complainants know this.

Indeed so effective can ‘brand abuse’ and consumer brand bullying be, that we are seeing the emergence of an entire noxious industry specialising in damaging rival brands and spokespeople through such tactics - a whole different discussion in itself.

So what can businesses do about hostile consumer feedback?

Assuming we’re talking about real people who feel genuinely put out by the actions or inactions of a brand, what can businesses do to diffuse the situation and protect brand value? The short answer is that I am not aware of one right way to handle things. However, what I do think has changed over time is that remaining silent is no longer a sensible option. You do need to do something.

While it’s upsetting, this is the culture in which we now operate and we’re not going to change it overnight. So, we need to think carefully about how we can handle these things in a way that’s authentic. The days of having a policy of issuing a simple blanket ‘holding statement’ on these interactions are really and truly gone because, while these attacks place most companies on the defensive, they only seem to make matters worse. Frankly, we all know when we’re getting a ‘fob off’ stock response, and worse than that is these days other people can see when someone is being given one. This merely serves to exacerbate the situation and shows that senior management simply don’t care

We need to have a carefully crafted response strategy to protect our brand. Covid-19 has been the perfect example of tensions running high and anger becoming widespread and sometimes misdirected or disproportionate. Whilst it doesn’t serve any purpose to go down a rabbit hole with someone who is gunning for a row, we must at all times be cognisant of the fact that what we put down in writing needs to be thought about not just as a single statement, but as part of an ongoing narrative. A conversation which will frequently be available for all our customers to see in social media.

If we don’t deal with hostile communications, we all lose

The truly sad thing for everyone about this type of attacking behaviour is that it creates such a sense of fear in public figures and brand owners that they can easily retreat into banal statements rather than being willing to engage, push boundaries and dare to dream of new ideas.  

Perhaps the most common public environment in which we have seen this happen in recent months, is politics. Such is the ‘gotcha culture’ and blame, particularly from the media, that politicians seem to have retreated into a policy of simply broadcasting often complex information instead of communicating and explaining the context. Of telling, not selling. This only serves to create more space for anxiety, questioning and an increasing sense that something is being kept from us, which has the perverse effect of creating more anger. 

Given the high level of criticism against politicians, maybe this is completely understandable when communicating things that are so incredibly complex and open-ended. It takes a brave individual to answer a question by saying openly: ‘I don’t know’. However, perhaps sometimes this would be the better approach.

The tall and the short of it seems to be that in an environment where blame and finger pointing are the first port of call, we need to find a way of defusing hostile communications. This begins with an  understanding of where the client is coming from and responding to them in a measured and unarguably reasonable manner. If there is fault on your part, admit it and rectify it. If the client has misunderstood, walk the situation through with them (without revealing sensitive information). The hope is that reason will prevail and a resolution will be found. If that isn’t the case then at least anyone observing the interactions, and in social media there will be many, will be able to draw a more balanced conclusion.  

Someone once said to me: ‘The thing about the truth is that it sounds true.’ Somewhere in the back of our minds, if a story has the hallmarks of authenticity then we tend to know it. It feels like a very risky approach to open up in that way when you’re being attacked, but it seems to me that when it comes to the reputation of your brand, the altogether riskier option in today’s climate is to remain silent.