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The Esquire Guy on Handling a PR Crisis With Style

Magazine Contributor
Articles Editor, GQ magazine
9 min read

This story appears in the April 2014 issue of . Subscribe »

If this column were having a PR crisis, I would not put myself in charge of managing it. I wouldn't determine when and how frequently to respond, and I wouldn't determine what kind of information to deliver. I would hire someone to do that for me. But I would put myself in charge of one crucial layer of the response: its tone. Not the content of the message, but its character.

This is about the style with which you respond to complaints lodged about your company over social media ... or in the press ... or at a party. (Though if you are actually at a party, best to just find someone else to talk to.) If your message has style, then your message cannot contain indifference, annoyance, defensiveness or panic. You may be feeling one or all of those things, but style will displace them. At least publicly.

There are two things you cannot get away with: You cannot get away with condescending to or mocking the complainer. In general, and especially over social media, if the complaint is worthy of mockery or condescension, there are people unaffiliated with your company who will do that for you. So let them.

"When the complaint is obviously not firmly anchored on hard ground, I'll sit back and let other people reply before I'll jump in--especially on Facebook or Twitter," says Henry Posner, director of corporate communications and online reputation manager for New York City-based electronics store B&H Photo-Video. "I'd rather get a pat on the back than dislocate my shoulder patting myself on the back."

This brings up an important point: Policing social media is the slipperiest of slopes. It's so slippery that when you slip you can fly off the slope altogether and onto a brand-new slope--a slope of your own creation, lubricated by the grease of your own certitude. Then you fly off that slope, too. So, first, look down at that slope and ask yourself: a) How far down does it go? And b) What is that--a petroleum product? Some sort of machine grease?

But if you do respond, the tenor of your message should be guided by this understanding: When someone goes after your company, their attitude or anger is braver and less concerned with tact than it would be in daily life. You are dealing with their representative--an invisible agent they're employing to handle things for them (an angry comic-book villain, basically). The agent is being sent in to both inflict and take hits.

The mistake we can make is to send our own representative in to do battle with the other person's. Says Posner: "Customers who say the most insulting things about B&H aren't talking about me. So I try to maintain an even keel, be very factual and very careful about distinguishing facts from opinions from beliefs." Distinguishing those things helps keep you objective, he adds. "Not dispassionate. Not uninterested. But objective."

You want the customer to understand that you're concerned about righting a wrong. When dealing with attacks on your company, you should not wear the mantle of Defender of Your Company. In fact, you should not wear any kind of mantle. If you are currently surrounded by a mantle, throw it off. (Note: If the mantle is part of a fireplace, you have found yourself in an entirely different metaphor.)

Daniel Diermeier, professor at the Kellogg School of Management and an expert on crisis leadership and reputation management, says that solving the customer's problem is almost beside the point. There's something larger going on. "It's an opportunity for you to show customers you really care," he says. "The mindset that's important here is that these attacks or crises can also present an opportunity for businesses or leaders to show what they're made of."

So, triangulate. Take on the role of arbitrator between two parties: the customer and your business. The customer should be helped to understand the facts, just as the company should be helped to understand the facts. The facts are your cover, your rock. If you establish the facts, then you subdue the attitude, vitriol and snark. Facts allow you to be principled in responding, and they allow you to seem vigilant but not defensive, mindful but not obsequious. They allow you to seem professional--and human.

Of course, you might not win over the complainer. "At some point, you're not dealing with the customer, you're dealing with all the other people in the audience who are watching you go three rounds with the customer," Posner says. "Even if you're not going to win, you can demonstrate patience and a willingness to help, despite the customer's apparent intransigence and unwillingness to be helped."

The victory is that you've shown that your company will remain firm and not debase itself to try and score an easy point. And that it's always guided by principles--even on Facebook and Twitter. Especially on Facebook and Twitter.


Key Technical Matters

When typing your witty rejoinder over Twitter, first go to the drop-down menu on the upper right and select "Sign out."

To be clear: Whatever your initial response to an attack on or complaint about your company is, disregard it. Never utter it, type it, handwrite it or send it in a letter.

(Though if you are in the habit of sending letters, god bless you, for it is a dying art.)

The tenor of your eventual response should be: steady, even-keeled, well-balanced and all sorts of other synonyms for "not freaked out."

Never talk down to the complainer.

Never minimize the complaint.

Never maximize the complaint, either.

(For the life of us, we don't know why you would maximize a complaint, but still, don't do it.)

Keep the focus on the facts.

Express no opinions. Other than: This complaint is valid.

Unless it is remarkably invalid. In which case, express no opinions.

When your company is attacked over Twitter, keep in mind that the phrase "attacked over Twitter" involves the word "attack" as well as the word for "a series of light chirps," and note the inherent absurdity of the situation you find yourself in.

Do not point out this absurdity to the Twitter attacker.

A competitor is retweeting any and all complaints about your company's latest product. Crickets. "While we appreciate the handy RTing of complaints about us, please know that we reach out to customers directly when we make them cranky." You retweet complaints about your competitor.
A Twitter user with fewer than 100 followers mocks your business. You respond robotically, saying that you'd love to solve the problem if they'll let you. Crickets. You mock the complainer's low follower count ... to your tens of thousands of followers.
A celebrity with fewer than 100,000 followers criticizes your business. You earnestly retweet, adding: "We loved you on ... that show!" You state how you wish the celebrity were as big a fan of your business as you are of his guest spot on CSI. Crickets.
A celebrity with more than 100,000 followers criticizes your business. You earnestly retweet, adding: "Thor hates us. :("* You state how you wish the celebrity were as big a fan of your business as you are of his oeuvre. Crickets.
One of your customers crowdsources the identity of a weird buzzing sound coming from outside. Crickets. "Crickets?" "Who knows! But have you heard the buzz about our company?"

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