How not to communicate on social media: the angry reply

This case study describes a real-life event that serves as an excellent example of how not to communicate through social media. Names have been changed.

Bob works for a digital marketing company called Agency1. When a public competition is announced, calling for proposals for a project that seems to fit well in the scope of agencies like Agency1, Bob and some colleagues decide to enter the competition. In this competition, the proposals will be evaluated by a jury of professionals, selected because of their expertise by the organisers of that tender.

Since the project is aimed to involve a specific target audience, Luke, one of the jury-members, decides to partially crowd-source the evaluation. Luke writes a blog post, in which he also gives an initial evaluation of the five projects submitted. The analysis is very thorough and fair, but also very straight forward. Rightfully, Luke points out some questions he has with some of the claims made in proposals, but also emphasises the positive things about them. He signs his blog post with his name, and the function he plays in the organisation he works for, which is also a co-sponsor of the competition: he’s a specialist in the field.

Some of the teams that have entered the competition respond enthusiastically to Luke’s post, spreading it on Twitter and Facebook (and Google+), and some even respond in the comment section with further builds. Some teams simply ignore (or did not notice) it. But the team of Agency1 is angered by the evaluation of Luke. Especially Bob, who openly questions the expertise of Luke. On Twitter, of course.

However, that’s apparently not enough to vent his anger. Bob is so offended by Luke’s post that he writes a blog post in return, and posts it on his personal blog. The title of the post makes clear how Bob feels, as it refers to Luke as a fraud. In the first lines Bob makes clear that he expects to be evaluated by people who know more about the subject matter than he does, and Luke is clearly not one of them. In other words: Bob thinks himself more of an expert than Luke. In the rest of his post he explains the position Agency1 takes in their proposal further, citing research by acknowledged sources in the field. But Bob seems to have understood only part of the research results, and draws conclusions that can be generously classified as rookie mistakes.

To give the post a bit more attention, Bob posts a link to it on the official Facebook page of Agency1, with a comment along the lines of ‘This is what you get when you attack us: we hit back hard!’. And of course, he tweets about it, getting retweeted by some of his colleagues of Agency1 and other well-known tweeters in the country.

That is where the backfire starts. Because the well-known tweeters start reading the post and realize that Bob has gone too far. And they say so. Publicly. On Twitter. And Facebook, where Bob replies that when he is attacked, he needs to defend himself, and that the best defense is attack. This might be true for competitive sports, but for an agency specializing in digital communication, it seems highly unprofessional.

The worst part for Bob comes when a photo of him pops up in the social networks, on which the text: “Scumbag contestant, gets bad review. Attacks judge personally.” is pasted. Apparently, this was an actual comment made about Bob and his post. From young and hip agency guy, he has turned into a scumbag.

And what will (potential) clients think of how professional the agency is? Well, imagine that you want to hire an agency for a project, will you hire one that openly attacks people that have fair comments about the quality of their work? Or an agency that sees criticism as an attack that warrants public personal attacks?

Communication on social networks brings a lot of transparency. And with that comes scrutiny. Not only from competition, but also from people interested in the same topics as you are, potential clients, and anybody else with an opinion. If you speak on behalf of your company, or even if you don’t but you are publicly linked to your company or brand, you need to be very mindful of what you are saying in public. Based on this case study, here are five tips for replying to criticism on social networks:

  1. if you receive public criticism, reflect in how far the criticism might be true, and in case of doubt, ask a peer for his opinion;
  2. if someone is selected by a potential client as an expert, take their criticism as valuable lessons, and if you don’t agree, try to educate them or find common ground;
  3. if you want to refute criticism, base yourself on facts and facts alone;
  4. do not take criticism on your work personal (take it as an opportunity to learn);
  5. do not launch personal attacks on others (it will always backfire).

What do you think Bob should have done?


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