Saving Face(book): Zuckerberg teaches small businesses how NOT to deal with negative publicity

When the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal broke and Mark Zuckerberg started appearing in the same sentence as “major breach of trust”, the face behind Facebook (whose bread and butter is conversation) seemed to have developed a curious case of laryngitis.


When the social media giant did finally slink back into our newsfeeds, his first attempt at patching things up was a bit of a ‘miss’. He had taken too long. Even worse, he was all about the “what happened” – he made no apology and failed to own Facebook’s part in the data breach.


The conversation took a bad turn for Zuckerberg. Suddenly, it was all about him and his integrity (or lack of). He found himself teaching a masterclass in what not to do in a public relations crisis.


(Zuckerberg! Dude! What were you thinking??)


It’s easy to try and reassure ourselves that these kinds of PR disasters only happen to the ‘big fish’ brands like Facebook, but small businesses aren’t immune to negative publicity.


Word-of-mouth has long been a major source of (free!) promotion for small business, and customers tend to trust personal recommendations more than paid advertisements. Of course, this is a double-edged sword, as you can’t control what customers choose to say about you.


Social media has taken the word-of-mouth concept to the next level and since most customer feedback is now broadcast online, this means that a bad review can float around in cyberspace forever and can often feel very personal.


Add to this the fact that 90% of customers consult online reviews before visiting a business and you could easily be persuaded to join Zuckerberg in his cone of silence (and denial).


Ignoring negative reviews is not a strategy I would recommend to my business coaching clients. You should always respond – apologise, try to see the growth opportunity in the feedback and thank them for the review. By responding, you can flip a potential PR disaster into a positive customer experience – with the bonus of a permanent online record of your responsiveness and commitment to customer service!


Sounds great, right? Almost makes you wish you had a bad review or two? Ok, maybe not…

It is worth noting that a couple of bad reviews won’t hurt your business reputation – no one is perfect and a 5-star rating with only positive comments makes it all look a bit ‘too good to be true’.


So how exactly can business owners get a positive out of a negative? Let’s take an example from my own business coaching experience…


One my coaching clients, a leading heating equipment company with national distribution (let’s call the business owner Ray*), had been alerted to two negative posts on a popular review site. As any small business owner can understand, your reputation in business can be one of your biggest assets and Ray’s was at risk.


In these situations, experience matters. I coached Ray on how to respond and gave him a roadmap in the unlikely case it happened again. These are the 6 steps I mentored him on:


Step 1. Hold your horses!

While you don’t want to take too long to respond, immediately reacting to negative customer feedback can be a mistake. Often, emotions are running high and you need to get the whole story before you get your ‘keyboard warrior’ on. Put down your phone, tablet or laptop and take a breath. Remember, keep calm and follow the plan. It works.


Step 2. Do some detective work and evaluate the review

First off, Ray needed to cross reference the review details with his business sales records. Right away, suspicions were raised – we couldn’t find customers or jobs in the company database that matched the reviewer profiles or descriptions of their job.


I did some extra investigation on the review site and found a few things that also seemed suss: the timing of the reviews (two negative reviews close together), the dates the reviewer profiles were created (the day the reviews were posted), and the fact that these were the only reviews they had posted. That combination of factors indicates that the negative reviews were targeted and very likely fake, possibly even from a competitor.


Some review sites will let you make a case for having fake reviews taken down. They won’t always agree or take the post down right away, however, so you may still need to complete the steps in the plan.

Expert tip: It can be worth reading over the review site’s rules – not only will you avoid getting your business in more hot water, but if the negative review breaks the code of conduct (eg bad language or personal attacks etc) it may strengthen your case to have the post removed.


Step 3. Make contact (if you can)

Obviously, you cannot contact non-existent customers, but the record must show that you tried.

I advised Ray to create an official business profile on the review site and leave a message apologising for the reviewer’s experience and offering a way to contact him to discuss the complaint further. For example,

Hi X,
We sincerely apologise for your experience. We pride ourselves on both our product and customer service. If it is not too much trouble, we would appreciate the opportunity to discuss your feedback further, so we can improve our offering. Please contact us on 
(phone number) or (email) and we will get back to you as soon as possible. Thanks, (Business owner).

Side benefit: people may be discouraged from leaving nasty reviews if they can see that a real person is reading and responding to them.

At this stage in Ray’s plan, because the reviews were fake, it was unlikely he would get a response. He only had one opportunity to set the record straight. On my advice, Ray added extra details to the above message outlining his years of experience, as well as the industry awards his business had won. We also pointed to other reviews, such as Google and Facebook, where the reviewer’s identity could be verified. Anyone reading the review in the future would walk away with a more balanced view and notice that the company had taken steps to make amends.

Step 4. Take the discussion offline

If  your negative review is a genuine reflection of a poor customer experience, the person who left the review may take you up on your offer and contact your business directly. As confronting as the interaction may be, focus on taking the opportunity to:
·         genuinely apologise again for their inconvenience

·         gather information that will help you solve the problem

·         let them know what you intend to do to fix any issues (within your control)

·         reassure the customer that you will do everything you can to make sure their experience isn’t repeated

·         offer them an incentive to use your product or service again

·         thank them for their review and the opportunity to reach a resolution.


Step 5. The last word

Often you can use your official business profile on the review site to leave a final update. Based on how well the offline discussion went, you can decide whether or not it is worth having the “last word”. If it went well and the customer seemed happy with the outcome, you can use this opportunity to show potential customers how your business takes customer feedback seriously:

Thanks again for your valuable feedback. Based on our discussion, we found that (
outline the facts). We apologise, again, for your inconvenience. We have responded by (outline the changes you have made as a result). We would like to invite you to try our (product/service)again and offer you (discount/freebie etc). We hope you are happy with the outcome. Thanks, (business owner).  

If you follow these steps and maintain a positive and professional tone, potential customers who bump into a negative review of your business won’t just see the complaint – they will notice the time and effort you invest in your customers to resolve issues when things don’t go to plan.


Crisis averted. Phew!


Step 6. Learn and improve

Negative feedback (real feedback, not fake reviews from underhanded competitors) can actually be a blessing in disguise. If you are noticing a pattern of common complaints, use it as an opportunity to investigate what might not be working in your business from the customer’s point of view. It might give you a nudge to improve your product or systems, or even invest in some customer service training for your staff.

Hang on… what about Zuckerberg?

He made a bid for redemption. A very public apology on CNN included a clear action plan for reform and he didn’t try to pass the buck. Only time will tell if it was “too little, too late”, but it’s certainly reassuring that even companies with teams of public relations experts get this stuff wrong sometimes.

(* Name changed to protect my client’s privacy.)


PS Bonus tip! Stay on the front foot and minimise any potential damage by setting up Google Alerts for your company name. It’s super easy and only takes 2 minutes to do. Then anytime your company name appears online, you receive an automated notification and a link to the source. Some of our small business coaching clients have alerts for their competitors, so they can keep their finger on the pulse of other players’ activities. Click here to find out how to set up Google Alerts. You’re welcome!