How to Handle Online Criticism of Your Business or Organization

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As we all get more comfortable sharing our thoughts on social media, business owners are getting a lot more comfortable striking back. Usually these reactions don’t turn out so well and can lead to national attention, and not the good kind. In order to learn, I have kept a PR Worst file filled with all kinds of difficult, sticky and unbelievable situations. One of the things I have learned from all of these online crisis situations is that it is always better to respond rather than react, especially when you or your business are being criticized.

Online Reactions by Businesses

Here are just a few situations with small business owners that show the perils of reacting:

  • Last year, Chef/Owner Marc Orfaly of Pigalle, a Boston-based eatery, insulted customer Sandy Lutkevich who didn’t like her Thanksgiving dinner in his restaurant and complained on his Facebook page saying his pumpkin pie tasted like vomit (the original post was deleted, but fans added it back). They later talked and made up.
  • In May of this year, Amy’s Baking Company Bakery Boutique & Bistro, a restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona, was featured on Kitchen Nightmares and the owners Samy and Amy Bouzaglo took to social media to fight back. However, their anger got the best of them, and they blamed Yelp and Reddit for their troubles, threatening legal action to anyone who left a negative comment. It made them look really bad, and they are still suffering the fallout from the encounter.
  • This week the Rainy Days Caffe asked two military Moms to leave their restaurant when their babies were loud and misbehaved. Lorraine ‘Rainy’ MacDuff, the owner, took a photo of the mess left under the table and posted it to Facebook with the headline: “I’d like to take this time to thank our customers with small children who don’t make messes.”  Since the issue of misbehaved kids in public has become a hot debate between those who blame parents for not controlling their kids and those who think that people should be more tolerant. An all out war ensued along these lines on the Rainy Day Caffe Facebook page with many (on both sides) making ugly threats and statements. Rainy ended up taking down the Facebook post and made an apology for posting the photo and welcomed the Moms back IF they didn’t bring their kids.

How to Handle Online Criticism

If you are online for any period of time, you or your business will be criticized – it is a given. How you react to these situations is more important than the criticism.

Respond, Don’t React

If someone attacks you or your business on social media do not return the attack. Even if you feel it is unfair, unfounded or plain rude, your job is to take a breath and think. Even though we are all expected to move at breakneck speed in this information age, time is your friend in this case. If it takes you an hour to calm down, take the time. You can’t completely ignore it, but unless you are dealing with the choice between popping off in anger or making a measured response, take the time every time. The one exception to this is if the crisis is time sensitive. If you are in a business where this could happen, you need to be prepared. If you don’t have a crisis plan, check out this post.  But in the heat of the moment it is critical you don’t respond emotionally. Instead, call in a lifeline. It could be someone who specializes in social media, but it could also be someone in your professional or personal circle whom you trust to be level headed. Run by your response to them, see how they would react and remember that angry customers are not often the most logical. So, keep in mind these next two points.

Take It Offline

It really helps to talk with the person who is upset with you or your business in real life. This ended up being the thing that ended the crisis for the Pigalle case study on a positive note.  Once the two parties talked, they realized they were human. It made a really big impact on both of them, and they ended up genuinely apologizing and becoming friends. The woman agreed to return to the restaurant. The same is true of all customer service complaints. If you can get the angry customer into a resolution process you can often settle the problem before it becomes a wider spread crisis. Also, an open complaint on a Facebook page or other social media leaves you and your business open to public criticism, and even flogging, by the public at large. It pays to take a personal approach, even if you are a big business.

Policy Doesn’t Matter, Being Human Does

Let’s say you have a policy you are enforcing that one of your customers doesn’t like. Whatever you do, do not cite your policy in a social media conversation. It makes you look more like you care more about procedures and policy than you do about the people you are serving. In the end, you may need to enforce your policy, but look at it from the customer point of view and attempt to understand what they are saying and how they feel. Once you have heard them, you can negotiate for a resolution; hopefully offline.

These are just a starting point, but considering these approaches can make a huge difference and help you to avoid what others have endured by jumping the gun.


  1. bobledrew says

    I think the key to this post is that final one, Kami. BEING HUMAN does. And if I were to add something to this, it would be: put yourself in the other person’s position. If you’re a business owner, put yourself in the position of the aggrieved customer. If you’re the recipient of crappy pumpkin pie or rude service, think before you thumb through your invective dictionary. Measure twice, saw once isn’t just good advice for carpenters.

    • says

      Bob; Actually, popping off is also human, but it misses the opportunity, and walking a mile in another person’s shoes is really not easy to do. However, as a business owner, we must.

  2. efloraross says

    This is a really great post. And I think it can be applied when the “business” or “brand” is an individual. I recently wrote about a situation which could have been handled differently online:

    Your Take It Offline approach makes a great deal of sense. I wasn’t taking that into account. But I think the rest of the advice was not followed. Would love your thoughts…

    • says

      I really appreciate your measured post about the blowup with Guy Kawaski and the women who felt he made sexist remarks. It is indeed hard to take criticism and look at it objectively, perhaps even making some changes because of it.

      • efloraross says

        Thank you, Kami! I do think it was a case or reacting rather than responding. I actually received a gracious email from Guy, saying he appreciated my perspective on the matter.


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