If Someone Slaps You on the Left Cheek…

March 29, 2009 Public Relations 6 comments

Don’t get into a hissy fit! (courtesy of Kevin Steele)

Life is never a bed of roses in Public Relations (PR). Especially when the negative public feedback and criticism is directed towards your organisation, products or even worse, your colleagues.

Should you simply grin and bear it? Or give it all you’ve got?

The easiest way to react is probably to shoot from your emotionally touchy-feely gut.

Take out that bazooka and blast those idiots into online oblivion. After all, they have taken unfair liberty with your organisation’s reputation by making unfair comments, unjust criticisms, or untrue allegations on their newspapers, magazines, radio programmes, blogs, forums, discussion groups, Facebook pages, Tweets, etcetera etcetera…

But you do know that if you choose to retaliate, your detractors aren’t going to just “Let It Go” (ala Frozen) you know. Chances are, they’ll come for more. And then some.

Fighting Ain’t Worth It

My advice?

Don’t get into the fray. The surest way to stoke the flames of public wrath is to fight fire with fire.

As Gandhi himself would have put it:

“An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”

Such tit-for-tat exchanges seldom have a happy ending. They end up with lose-lose outcomes where relationships just turn from bad to acrimonious and maybe even downright murderous.

Sometimes, bridges are burned so badly that they lead to boycotts (online or offline) of your organisation’s brands and services.

You may have won the battle by defending your organisation’s integrity, but lost the war for public goodwill.

How then should one react to negativity?  Can we truly just turn the other cheek and do nothing about it?

Take a Deep Breath

First, take a deep breath and maintain your cool.  Don’t take it personally.

If you were in the midst of typing up that “kill those bastards” post on your blog, or writing a letter to the press that will “decimate the enemy”, you should stop this very instant. Things that are done when you are outraged aren’t usually worded in the best possible manner, and may lead to a further negative spiral in relationships.

Split the Scene (Physically or Virtually)

If you can’t achieve nirvana at your desk, my advice is to leave.

No not quit the organisation (hopefully you don’t have to), but take a walk. Perhaps you could take a couple of minutes to walk to a park or garden nearby, along the river, or anywhere that is quiet.

Alternatively, you may perhaps wish to spill your sorrows to a colleague, scream in the toilet or do something to let all that negative energy out. Don’t just simmer and stew.

Consider the Other Person’s Perspective

Next, you should think through why that person (or group) behaved in that particular manner.

Was he slighted by your organisation’s officers in the past? Were they publicly attacked or humiliated because of something which your organisation failed to do? Does she truly have a vested interest in seeing to the downfall of your organisation?

As Stephen Covey would have said:

“Seek First To Understand, and then To Be Understood.”

Plus of course the age-old concept of thinking win-win.

Address the Allegations

When that is done, explore various ways to address that person’s points and ponder over the best way to do so.

Would a direct approach (eg an email or phone call, if contacts are available) be better? Or would a public platform serve the purpose more adequately, since there may be other customers or stakeholders with the same concerns?

Should there be a need for a written response, you may consider adopting the following ground rules in your written correspondence:

1) Be polite and pleasant, but not to the point of sounding superficial or plastic. Always thank the person for his or her view. Obviously, he or she must care enough to invest time, energy and effort in putting up a stinker!

2) Address the points raised as clearly as possible, in an objective and factual manner. However, do so while displaying empathy in your language.

3) Brevity is an advantage, but don’t be too curt. You don’t want the public to think that you are unreceptive to feedback. At the same time, you shouldn’t be-labour the point.

4) Be honest about what’s possible and what’s not. If space is limited (eg a letter to the forum pages), offer your contact particulars so that the person or group can contact you directly for a more comprehensive explanation.

5) If you have truly screwed up, just admit it. However, explain the circumstances behind that moment of failure if you can. We are all human beings after all, and to err is human.

6) Finally, end off by inviting that person to continue to be a customer/client/patron of  your organisation’s products and services, and to continue to provide inputs. State that you value his or her contributions.

When All Else Fails, Meet Face-to-Face

If the situation calls for it, arrange a face-to-face meeting, preferably over a cup of coffee.

I know this doesn’t come across naturally for most people (you mean I have to meet that jerk? What happens if I end up punching him in the face….), but trust me, it has worked incredibly well for me.

When you do so, try to give the other party the benefit of the doubt. Don’t go to that meeting armed with files, fact sheets and bullet points to defend your cause.

Instead, go with an open heart and open ears. Just be prepared to spend more time listening than talking.

Fierce Critics Can Be Great Allies

In all my years of dealing with people, I find that most of them are not really monsters but decent human beings who just need to be heard.

Should it be feasible, you may even consider inviting that person/group to be a part of your organisation’s sounding board/ focus group.

Let them know the extent of your pain as far as possible (subject to confidentiality and competitive factors of course), and offer them the rare and privileged opportunity of coming up with a solution. You may even formalise this relationship through some official letter or appointment!

What About Anonymous Critics?

Of course you may next ask me what happens if that person or group preferred to remain anonymous and to respond in a public online platform (like a blog, Facebook post, or forum posting). What then should you do?

Well, that will depend on the gravity of his or her criticisms and the damage which might be inflicted.

If their allegations truly warrants a response, I would put one up on an official platform (personal or professional) that is easily viewed and identified. This could be on your website, blog or Facebook page. I would then leave the matter at that without responding to subsequent follow-up posts on the matter.

Your Goal? Restore Normality

Eventually, all storms and battles will die-down. The trick in good PR is to let an unpleasant matter die down and restore normality as soon as possible.

Keeping a controversy alive by fanning the flames or adding coal to the fire isn’t a wise move. Especially when social media has the propensity of magnifying and enlarging any misstep into an echo-chambered calamity.

Have you experienced an online attack on your organisation before? What did you do to quell those flames?

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.


  1. Hi Walter, I think this is an excellent post that summarises an enlightened approach to handling negative criticisms in public relations. And you wrote this on a Sunday morning?? :-p

  2. Walter, this is the best post I’ve read so far on handling negativity in PR that packs authority without sounding presumptuous or worse, like a smart aleck. Kudos.

  3. Hi Walter!

    It’s me, Phyllis, we met on the pickup coach the day we arrived in Melbourne.

    Your blog is great! I can relate to the content and I’m really interested in the posts too.

    Just wondering, what’s your blog readership?

    Anyway, will be bookmarking this link and be re-visiting soon.

    Cheers and keep it up!

  4. Hi Walter,
    You have my respect.If every civil servants or public relation officers have the same thought, life in this world, would be so pleasantly different.

    Not only for the aggrieved, but the officer themselves, family and friends too. We cannot expect everyone to graciously moved on.

    I love this post and the phrase “Seek First To Understand, and then To Be Understood”

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