Editor's note: V. Kanchana is an independent researcher based in New Delhi. She can be reached at v.kanchana10@gmail.com. This article appeared in the November 12, 2012, edition of Quirk's e-newsletter.

The rise of social media has given consumers the freedom to say anything they wish about a company and its products and services. As more companies venture into the social media space, the fear of negative sentiment looms large. In the past, a dissatisfied customer would tell 10 people about a bad experience. Now, the same customer has the power to communicate his anger with millions of people in real time. Any misstep can be blogged about, shared, tweeted and retweeted in a matter of seconds, leaving a company's online reputation in tatters.

A negative post in a blog can have a profound impact on a business's reputation in the marketplace unless timely crisis management is done. Businesses should address negative comments and reviews to protect the brand and company image and represent what the brand truly stands for in the public domain.      

A recent customer survey by American Express showed that almost half of U.S. Internet users use social media for seeking a response from a company about a service issue or for providing feedback and sharing information about their service experiences, both positive and negative, with a wider audience. As consumers increasingly go online to discuss products and brands, seek advice and offer guidance, it can be difficult to see where and how to influence these conversations. Additionally, these conversations may take only seconds to change the mind of a prospective customer.

No single measure

There's no single measure of online media's financial impact and many companies find it difficult to justify allocating significant resources - financial or human - to an activity whose precise effect remains unclear. If companies can identify exactly how, when and where online media influences consumers, it would help executives to design marketing strategies that take advantage of online media's unique ability to engage with customers.

The deciding factors to the success of a company's online reputation lie in having a robust plan in place to deal with the negative buzz and constantly monitoring, tracking and responding to comments on online media. This requires integration among teams within a company, expanded thinking about what words and issues to track and, in some cases, partnering with outside companies and vendors to provide monitoring services. Most media monitoring companies have tools that can track online coverage and tell you how you are faring in relation to your competitors.

The grey area

The grey area lies in tracking how many of the media mentions that the tools track indicate negative consumer sentiment. Often, the marketing communications team faces a tough situation picking and choosing words that would produce the right results. It is important to feed in the appropriate keywords to get the correct analytics out of the data.  

Understanding what drives online media negatives and positives is also crucial in getting the analytics right. For instance, mainstream media coverage plays a key role in influencing the count of negative mentions in social media. In a study from the Pew Research Center on Obama vs. Romney, two media outlets were slanted in opposite directions. For every 23 stories published by MSNBC about Romney, only one was positive. At Fox News, only about one in every eight stories published about Obama was positive. Social media is quick to pick up these stories, meaning there is a high chance of media analytics being skewed. 

Gatorade and McDonald's both offer examples of how addressing negative media head-on can yield positive results.


PepsiCo's Gatorade has created a Chicago-based "war room" within its marketing department to monitor the brand in real time across social media. There are seats where team members can track custom-built data visualizations and dashboards, including terms related to the brand, sponsored athletes and competitors and run sentiment analyses around product and campaign launches. This feedback is integrated into products and marketing. Since the war room's creation, the average traffic to Gatorade's online properties, the length of visitor interactions and viral sharing of campaigns have all more than doubled.

Such brand monitoring, which includes simply being aware of what's said online about your products and services, should be a default online media function taking place constantly. An effective monitoring program informs everything from product design to marketing and provides advance warning of potentially negative publicity. It's also critical to communicate such feedback within the business quickly. Whoever is charged with brand monitoring must ensure that information reaches relevant functions (i.e., communications, design, marketing, public relations, etc.)


McDonald's quickly understood the benefits of tracking media mentions when a hoax photograph posted online claimed that McDonald's was charging African-Americans an additional service fee. The hoax first appeared on Twitter, where the image went viral just before the weekend as was retweeted with the hashtag #seriouslymcdonalds. On Saturday, the company's director of social media released a statement through Twitter declaring the photograph to be a hoax and requesting key influencers to please let their followers know. The company continued to reinforce that message throughout the weekend, even responding personally to concerned Twitter users. By Sunday, the number of people who believed the image to be authentic had dwindled and McDonald's stock price rose 5 percent the following day. 

Turn negatives into positives

It is important to pay close attention to online networks and popular industry forums to prepare a proper plan of action to turn negatives into positives. Remember, negative posts not only alert the media managers on a company's bad performance, they also help product managers improve their product or service. Taking a proactive approach demonstrates that your business is responsive to customers and will minimize, if not eliminate, the detrimental impact of negative comments. Having an efficient internal response system in place allows your team to resolve the issue within a few hours of the incident. It is worth having a person dedicated to monitoring the complaints and working to satisfy every customer. 

The key steps to efficiently handle a crisis situation in media include 1) creating your talking points and being ready with responses for any situation, 2) having a designated small team to approve responses to ensure legal compliance before going on to respond to a negative comment and 3) taking account of the frequency and types of comments received.

Keep the conversation positive when responding to negative feedback. By doing so, a business can avoid creating a negative image while having a useful - not argumentative - conversation. Take immediate steps to correct any problems and let the customer know which actions will be taken to remedy any issues. Often this approach will turn a negative experience into a positive one for all online fans to see.

For example, after receiving negative feedback online, Dell took initiative by holding a customer advisory panel. The company invited one group of vocally dissatisfied online bloggers and social media fans, as well as a group of its online evangelists. The panel spent the day discussing issues and Dell representatives took notes and promised to make changes.

Here are a few tips for handling negative feedback:

Listen. Listen first to your customers without reacting.

Be honest. If you're going to engage a negative reviewer, be completely honest and don't make excuses.

Remain calm. Don't let a situation get heated and spiral out of control.

Speak like a human. Talk to your customers like a real person and not in jargon they won't understand.

Keep promises. Whether it's a promise that you'll try harder, make amends, listen more, etc., give them a sign that you heard them, you care and you want to be better for them.

Sometimes you might come across negative comments that use obscene or threatening language or violate your community guidelines. In such situations, deleting the comments is the best solution. If you have time to delete the posts and deal with the person in private, you can let them know that you are attempting to deal with their problems on a more personal level.

Internal policy

Having a social media engagement plan will help you know how to respond in various situations. A good social media plan explains when it is acceptable to delete a comment and what the protocol is, as well as when and how to respond to other comments.

Your policy should include protocol on:

  • How quickly you will respond. If you want to respond to customers within the hour of tweeting or posting, make sure you have a team monitoring the space or have an alert system.
  • When you respond. Are you responding to every negative post? For larger brands this can be challenging but not impossible.
  • How an issue is escalated. When is it necessary to bring in another department? What tools does the social media team have in place to help the customer? When do you take the issue offline with a phone call or e-mail?

Document these processes so that all departments are aware.

External policy

Having an external policy can also help manage negative feedback. For example, Intel has outlined on its Facebook page the types of posts that will be taken down, such as abusive remarks, offensive language, fraudulent posts, spam, etc. Intel's social media guidelines also include a "the Good, the Bad, but not the Ugly" rule, which states that Intel will leave the positive comments and the negative comments but not abusive, foul or inappropriate comments.    

Monitoring tools

To monitor your online reputation efficiently, you can use free and/or paid services online. Free services like Google Alerts and Social Mention help keep track of where a business is being discussed online through automated e-mail notifications. There are also a multitude of paid media monitoring Web sites like Vocus, Meltwater, Sysomos, Factiva and Radian6, which can provide an in-depth look at any organization's reputation by analyzing the sentiment of posts and comments. Although online monitoring tools capture a vast amount of mentions on the Web, no tool can capture every mention, due to privacy settings.

Online media monitoring tools use advanced algorithms to analyze the language used in every social media comment about your brand or your product. They present this data in charts and divide comments into positives and negatives so you can accurately measure the success of your campaigns. Sometimes, however, cleaning of the data provided by media monitoring tools is essential to arrive at the right counts of negative mentions. Not every negative post is negative in tone.

These tools can also tell you where you're being talked about the most. You might find that almost all of the conversation is on Twitter, which makes a Twitter outreach campaign much more fruitful than a Facebook one. However, Twitter is less engaging than Facebook so one bad Facebook comment weighs heavier than a tweet.

A preventative technique

Apart from tracking online media, creating and publishing great content serves as a preventive technique in negative results coming up more often during searches. It helps drown out any other brand-connected searches in the social network - including derogatory ones.

Another way to boost positive chatter is to make it simple for new customers to sing your praises. Ensuring that the company Web site or e-store allows customers to submit reviews is essential. For businesses that don't have an online purchase or product, an on-site customer computing center is one solution.     

Here to stay

Companies need to have a strong negative media monitoring plan so they can track online negative comments, deal with negative buzz before it becomes a problem and control their online reputation. Online customer service is here to stay and the sooner brands can put their media policy in place and start listening and participating in customer discussions, the better positioned they are to deliver a world-class customer experience.