At some point, it’s going to happen.

You’re going to wake up and find your organization trending on Twitter. And not in a good way.

There is a right way and a wrong way to respond to negative comments you receive in social media.

At my digital marketing agency, we spent years developing the right way. Here it is.


Tod’s keynote presentation is a great addition to your next conference or corporate event. Your attendees will also get a laminated “cheat sheet” handouts will help enormously when good buzz goes bad online.


Prefer to learn the SWARM method with video? Tod’s short four-minute video will teach you all five steps of the methodology, along with some real-world tactics on responding to negative feedback.

S – Speak Like a Human

Organizations have a bad habit of communicating with people as if they were, well, organizations. They speak in grand tones of “we” and “us” — trying very hard to avoid admitting that an actual human being (“I” and “me”) wrote the text. Words like “we” and “us” serve only to distance yourself from your correspondent and, in a crisis situation, this is the last thing you want to do. Rather, you want people to identify with you and feel like you’re both “in it together.”

Speaking like a human is all about tone.

Remember, these are social networks — so your tone should be social in nature. Imagine your Twitter monitoring tool (you do have one, right?) picks up someone who tweets this:

What horrible service I just got at Fake Garage Inc. Mechanic totally tried to screw me over and bill me three times what that battery costs!

Before social networks, if you got this in the form of a mailed letter, you might have responded with an organizational voice:

We’re sorry to hear of the issues you’re having. Thank you for letting us know.

It’s sounds trite and one almost expects to see a filename at the bottom, giving away the fact that someone at your firm just copied-and-pasted from a form letter:


Classy. Instead, you should speak with your own, human voice. Display the emotions that a normal human would. If instead you didn’t, in fact, work for Fake Garage Inc., and this person was a friend of yours, telling you this story, you certainly wouldn’t say:

Gee David, this is something which is very unfortunate. I trust that the matter will be resolved in an expeditious manner. Thank you for telling me the details of this experience you had.

No, you’d probably express some degree of surprise, empathy, and concern for your friend’s feelings. Just because you work for Fake Tires Inc. doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respond like you would face-to-face. A good Twitter response might be:

Yikes — I’m so sorry to hear this happened. That certainly isn’t the kind of service we strive for. Pls DM me. I’ll follow up directly. ^Tod

Even though this is only 140 characters (the maximum message length on Twitter), there’s a lot going on here. Let’s break this response down.

  • Yikes There’s no “yikes” in the corporate dictionary, and that’s precisely why you should use it, or something like it. Think honestly about what your natural reaction was to that tweet. What did your inner voice say? It probably said “Yikes” or “Oh no” or “Eeegads.” Those are the very words you should use. It shows that you’re a real person with real feelings too. In my experience, an honest starter-word like this has been able to de-escalate the issue by itself. .
  • I’m so sorry to hear this happened. It’s okay to apologize. In my own work on client accounts, I make a point to add the word “so” in that sentence. Somehow, it adds an extra layer of honesty. Again, an organization might say “We’re sorry,” but only a human would say “I’m so sorry.” As well, there is a pervasive myth in the corporate world that suggests that if you apologize you are now somehow legally liable. It’s not true. You can feel sorry that someone had a bad experience. That doesn’t mean you have to comp them their entire car repair bill. .
  • That certainly isn’t the service we strive for. Remember that in a public tweet conversation, it’s not just you and the person who’s angry who are seeing these messages — anyone who follows both your account and the angry person’s account will see this. An example: In addition to a bunch of friends, I follow my local cable company’s tech support Twitter account (@shawhelp). At least once or twice a month, I’ll see in my Twitter stream a friend having problems with their account or service. How they treat my friend is important to me and may change my opinion of them when it comes time to renew my service. .
  • Please DM me. In Twitterspeak, this means to send a private message. As we’ll discuss later, you will want to take this discussion offline as fast as you can. Acknowledge the message, thank the person, apologize if necessary, and move the discussion behind closed virtual doors. This will then keep the discussion off the Twitter stream of those who follow both you and your correspondent. .
  • I’ll follow up directly. This might be the most important part of the message — you, personally, are making a direct commitment. This is a much stronger statement than “We will follow up,” which, frankly, nobody believes. Think about it: If you got a letter back from a company saying “We will look into the matter,” do you really expect they will? Probably not. But again, by using first-person pronouns (“I,” in this case), you reinforce the fact that there’s a human being behind your tweet and that you will look into it. .
  • ^Tod This caret symbol (^) is a Twitter convention that identifies the person typing. If you work for a large organization, you might be using this. In most cases I’ve seen, the convention has been to use initials, like ^TM. I strongly recommend you use a real first name since it’s easier for people to identify with a name than a set of initials. This also reinforces the commitment you made earlier. Some organizations set up a Twitter account for each individual person — like Canadian mobile phone provider Fido. In such a case, using the caret convention is unnecessary.

In the early 2000s, tech enthusiast Robert Scoble was a frequent contributor to some online support groups of Microsoft software. During that time, he blogged about Microsoft — sometimes good coverage, sometimes critical. Either way, his contributions proved so valuable, Microsoft hired him to, essentially, continue blogging and producing short video pieces as he ordinarily did. His posts didn’t go through a legal committee or a review board — they went right up on Microsoft’s site.

And he was still occasionally critical of Microsoft. In that way, he had earned the unofficial title of Chief Humanizing Officer. He put a human face on Microsoft because he was allowed to speak as a real person. Bill Gates couldn’t — he had shareholders and regulatory obligations. Scoble could because he was just a regular workerbee.

Speak with a human voice and you’ll be half the way there.

There is actually a second important “S” as well — and that’s to Size Up the commenter. By checking a user’s Klout score or finding out how many Facebook friends they have, you’ll have a rudimentary sense of the impact their words. Someone with a Klout score of 65 or higher could create enough buzz to cause additional damage, as their original post gets amplified by their followers.

This isn’t to suggest you should only respond to the high-impact people — far from it — but if you have a number of comments to respond to with limited time, a simple triage like determining their rough influence level might help you prioritize your response.

W – Win/Win

“Stand up!” squealed the leader at the conference I was attending. “And find a partner.” I cringed. Honestly, as a participant, I prefer zero interaction with others in the room. I’d much rather just absorb information from the speaker than participate in any ice-breaking exercises. It’s not that I’m anti-social; I just learn best on my own. Perhaps it’s my only-child tendencies coming out. But everyone stood up. An over-caffeinated woman in her 20s bounced up to me. “Hey — You can be my partner! We’ll win this thing, whatever it is.” The session leader explained the rules. “Hold your palms up against each other.” My partner jabbed her hands at me. I reciprocated. “Now then. I’m going to start a timer for 20 seconds. Whoever can get their partner to move their feet, wins.” His timer beeped, and my perky friend began pushing at my hands, trying to throw me off balance. I tried the same, in some kind of bizarre corporate-approved arm wrestle. Neither of us moved our feet and the timer went off. “Stop!” “So, how many of you employed the brute-force method of just pushing as hard as you could?” A few hands raised. “How many of you relaxed your arms, so your partner would fall into you, causing their feet to move?” A few snickers, and more hands. “And how many of you BOTH won?” Confused silence filled the room. “Did any of you agree to BOTH move your feet so you would both win?” A fellow in the back yelled out “You said the first person who moved their feet lost.” “No I didn’t. I said ‘Whoever can get their partner to move their feet, wins’. There’s no reason why you both couldn’t have won if you’d just agreed to both move your feet.”

Not Everybody Has to Lose

Sometimes we forget that just because one person wins doesn’t mean the other person has to lose. With just a little bit of thought, it’s not difficult to construct a scenario where both people win.

People complain on your social media channels because they want something to change — better quality service on their next visit, a cheaper rate, and so on. One way to help knock down an angry swarm is to give them something more than just a response. Give them a “win.” You don’t need to overthink this. Wins can be simple — a promise to check back with them to see if something they were complaining about has improved.

My company works with a number of shopping centres to help them manage their social media channels. One day, one of the centres’ Facebook Pages we moderate started to blow up. A visitor had posted a complaint about the in-mall kiosk vendors. These vendors sell everything from cell phone covers to makeup to inexpensive jewelry. Apparently, some of the vendors can be quite aggressive in their sales approach — even as far as grabbing passers-by by their arm to try to pull them over to their kiosks. The visitor complained about the aggressive kiosk people and her comment got an enormous amount of traffic — dozens of comments and Likes a minute in the opening salvos. My approach to responding was three-fold:

  1. Acknowledge the comments
  2. Promise to look into it
  3. Report back the next morning on what happened

Of course, the comments kept coming (some people hadn’t seen my post) so every dozen or so comments, I — posting as the shopping centre’s brand — would dive into the comments with, essentially, the same message but worded differently.

I tagged the major combatants so that they’d get notified that a response had been posted. Then I’d wait for another dozen to come in and post essentially the same thing, again, using different phrasing.

As soon as I started with this approach, comments died down almost instantly. People felt they were being listened to which is half the reason they posted. It impressed them even more because this was taking place in the evening, outside of business hours.

The next morning, mall management spoke to the kiosk vendors, gave them another copy of the selling guidelines, and threatened them with fines if more reports of aggressive tactics are reported.

Of course, I reported this in the comment stream, to keep people updated:

So the “win” there was that the comments actually resulted in something real happening.

Then, I sent a message to about 50 of the most active commenters:

Facebook, unfortunately, lumps all messages from brand pages into a generic “Other Messages” bucket which most people don’t check, so only about 15 people got back to me. Each one was happy to be contacted later. I filed their email addresses away and reached out to them a couple of months later to see if things had gotten any better.

Indeed, even just responding generated a wealth of positive sentiment.

Finding the right “win” is critical to a successful negative response. In this case, the “Win” people got was being listened to, kept updated, and had someone follow up with them to see if the situation had improved.

Done right, when they win, you win.

A – Avoid a Public Fight

Perhaps the biggest mistake I see organizations make online is they engage in a conversation about an issue in the public channel — whether that’s a blog, Facebook Page, Twitter account, or somewhere else.

Once you identify an issue and reach out to the combatant (for lack of a better term), you should take the issue “offline.” There are lots of ways to do this, but the simplest is to ask the person to email you the details.

  • If the issue shows up on Twitter, ask them to follow your brand account so you can DM them your direct email address, then continue the conversation there.
  • If the issue shows up on Facebook, ask them to send you a private message to your brand page, then continue the conversation there.
  • If the issue shows up on your blog, ask them to send you an email, then continue the conversation there.

Here’s a great example of a tweet that employed the ‘A‘ brilliantly:

This rep used the tweeter’s first name, expressed concern, then moved the conversation offline. Never, ever have a public fight in full view of the rest of the swarm.

Remember, during an attack (even one which is only a simple complaint) you have TWO audiences — the person who raised the issue, and everyone else who’s reading. Express concern, tell everyone you’re going to work on the issue, and move the combatant offline.

Have you ever had an email or Twitter fight with a friend? The more you go back-and-forth, the more the usually-tiny-issue escalates and before you know it, you’re not speaking to each other for a year. This is the nature of a tit-for-tat discussion — you will never, ever win.

Acknowledge the issue and move it offline.

R – Right the Wrongs

You may find that in the heat of the moment, people exaggerate the issue. Suddenly, a simple dispute over what they were charged becomes, in their mind, a criminal action where they were billed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

One of the peculiarities of “Digital Personality Disorder” is that combatants believe they won’t get attention without a very serious story. So, they might add details that simply aren’t accurate.

Someone posts this on your Facebook wall:


First, try to calm down the instinctive defensive feeling this creates in you.

Think — does this person have a real point? Perhaps that elevator really is, in fact, being jammed up by able-bodied people who could easily take the stairs.

Always look for a Win/Win.

This might be a great one for you. But, almost certainly your elevator hasn’t been broken for “half the time,” as this person claims. (And one more important thing — she’s put #fail in a Facebook post, which could indicate she has also posted this message on her Twitter account, reaching even more people.)

It’s important that you correct the record. Remember, Google has an elephant’s memory. If she had posted this in a blog review, you need to have the accurate information attached to this post, so correcting the records right on that page as a comment is critical. If she posted this on a consumer review site like Yelp, there’s nothing you can do to get her comment removed from your listing. There is nothing wrong with politely correcting the record, and you should absolutely do it if they have claimed something that isn’t true.

In this case, you might respond something like this:

  • Thank you for letting me know about this. I’m so sorry that happened to you Friday. (S – Speak Like a Human.)
  • I’ve instructed our team to put a sign in the elevators telling people to use the stairs if they don’t have mobility issues. (W – Win/Win) 
  • Please let me know directly at manager@restaurant.com if it’s not. (A – Avoid a Public Battle)
  • The elevator is almost always working, though. It shouldn’t have been broken half the time. (R – Right the Wrongs)
  • Could I pick your brains in the future about ways we can make our restaurant easier to get into? (M – Make Friends)

There is nothing wrong with politely correcting inaccuracies. In fact, you should do it. Just do it in a human, polite tone.


M – Make Friends

The final, and perhaps most important, part of the SWARM Methodology is to turn your combatants into advocates.

In the case of the previous section, when a wheelchair-using guest had issues with mobility in the restaurant, a simple way to make friends is to use her as a kind of informal focus group on access.

Always ask permission, though, before this kind of move, but done with tact and a genuine desire to improve, almost nobody will turn you down.

It’s simple to do — you don’t need special mailing list software or web-based bulletin boards. Just create a folder in your email program for each issue and store your new friends’ emails there. In the case of a restaurant, your issue-based folders could be:

  • Better access for wheelchairs (“accessibility”)
  • When are we getting gluten-free bread? (“gluten-free”)
  • Patio is too noisy (“patio/outdoor”)
  • Web site is too hard to order from (“web site”)

Then, once you’ve made some real improvement in these areas, send a single email back to these people (only if they gave you permission to do so when the issue first came up).

Remember to speak like a human — me and I, not us and we.

One example email:

Hi Dave, Last year, you were kind enough to let me know about the problems you were having trying to order food for delivery on our web site. Thank you again for your time describing the issue. Last week, we launched a new version of the web site and tried to incorporate many of your great suggestions. I would love it if you would try ordering again, and please use the coupon code DINNERFORDAVE. That one-time coupon will cover the cost of the food up to $50. If you have any other suggestions or comments on the new site, please let send them directly my way. I really appreciate your input!

The other advantage to making friends in the social channel is that this kind of direct service engenders more than fans — it can create advocates for your brand as well. If you’re attacked online, these people often will rally to your side. For this reason, you may want to use Twitter’s “lists” function or Google+’s “circles” function to keep a list of your best supporters, along specific topics. Just be sure, if you use a Twitter list, that you set it to Private so others can’t see the people on that list. (Facebook doesn’t have an easy way for brand pages to delineate their fans into different groups.)

It doesn’t take much time, but it’s important.

Do You Plan a Conference or Virtual Learning Sessions?

This is only a small part of my keynote presentation “The Facts of Strife: A Blueprint to Crisis Management Online.”

In the keynote presentation, your group will also learn:

  • Our company’s highly effective PEDB (Praise/Escalate/Delete/Ban) flow-strategy for managing your brand’s social media presence
  • How to create a Negative Response Strategy for your firm
  • The most effective, compliance-safe social media policies for employees
  • How one of the most talked-about social media campaigns ended up nearly destroying its brand
  • Tod’s model of a “web swarm,” and his five-step methodology for responding to a swarm
  • How your legal and marketing teams should deal when your brand falls victim to “Twitterjacking
  • Case studies of instances where organizations in your industry have faced attacks online, how they dealt with them, and the results
  • Why your organization’s next hire needs to be a Chief Humanizing Officer and what that role would entail
  • How to monitor the state of your brand’s reputation daily, with almost no technical expertise

Contact us if you’d like more information about bringing this presentation to your group.