The ethical way to respond to negative criticism online

What are the ethics of communicating with your target publics online? Traditionally, the masses were dictated a message by PR machines (either through print or visual media) and had very little right of reply. Anyone who disagreed with a particular message was able to call or write to the organisation, but generally speaking an individual’s concern was dealt with in a discrete manner and with little damage to the organisation’s brand.

But with the advent of social media, organisations are required to adopt a more personable online profile. They need to be able to communicate with their online communities more as a peer, rather than as a faceless organisation. Nielsen says that ‘Too many professional communicators in PR as well as journalism, still just do not get new media’  [1]. Organisations do not wield the same control over their message that they once did; now their brand is subject to the increasingly public nature of online criticism. PR practitioners need to understand this fact, and deal with negative commentary towards their brand shared on online spaces accordingly.

Responding appropriately to negative commentary

Hallahan claims that organisations need to monitor the spread of cyber-attacks or rumours relating to their brand and respond appropriately [2]. But what happens when an individual expresses their opinion on your Facebook wall, Twitter profile or blog that negatively damages your brand? What is the ethical way to respond to the situation?

Organisations that don’t allow negative commentary about their brand on their platforms risk creating an inauthentic environment which drives their audience to other platforms to express their negative opinion of the brand [3]. This means that this negative commentary may move to a platform over which the organisation has even less control. The only way for an organisation to deal with online negative commentary is to deal with it openly and appropriately.

An effective online PR strategy should take into account the risk that an online community may not always agree with your actions. Just in the same way that publics in the past were able to write a letter directly to an organisation to express their negative opinion or complaints, the internet provides a forum for individuals to do the same thing publicly where it can be seen – and sometimes even shared –  by others. When faced with this situation, online PR practitioners should not delete the post or tweet, or enter into a tit-for-tat public argument with the user, or just outright delete the social account or forum on which the complaint was posted.

The internet gives voice to the little people. This growing medium forces organisations to communicate with ‘the little people’ on their terms, using their platform. No longer can organisations dictated the flow of information – now they need to compete with the populous.  Facebook constantly makes it more difficult for business to interact with audiences and a corporation using Twitter only has 140 characters in which to express its message, the same as everybody else.

One of the best approaches to manage negative commentary around an organisation is for PR practitioners to allow (and potentially even encourage) well-argued criticisms to be voiced so that other members of the online community can counter-argue the criticism [4]. The benefits for organisations is that they are now provided the opportunity to respond to these criticisms and complaints publicly. This means that a complaint posted on a corporate Facebook profile allows an organisation to resolve the issue publicly; in this process they should not only be able to resolve the complaint, but also publicly prove to their online target public that they are willing to enter into a real and honest dialogue about their actions.


[1] Nielsen, Y 2003, ‘Public relations and new media in the Australian context’, in M Rao (ed.), News media and new media: the Asia-Pacific Internet handbook, Episode 5, Eastern Universities Press, Singapore, p 170.

[2] Hallahan, K 2004, ‘Protecting an organization’s digital public relations assets‘, Public Relations Review, vol. 30, iss. 3, September, pp. 255–68.

[3] McWilliam, G 2000, ‘Building stronger brands through online communities‘, MIT Sloan Management Review, Spring.

[4] Ibid.


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