Finding the courage to express yourself is not always an easy thing to do. While the internet provides many tools to share our opinions, articles, blog-posts and other creations with the world, it also opens us to opinions of others: the good, the bad and the cruel. From the moment you start writing on the web, you discover that developing a thick skin is a necessary skill for survival.
I have been called a "spin doctor" by a reader of the Belgian financial newspaper De Tijd after publishing an article on the euro crisis. I have been called a "corrupt person just like all the others Greeks" by a Dutch Twitter user. If I had listened to all the criticism, I would have given up long ago.
We live in an increasingly digital world. Our daily experiences are becoming more and more digitally enabled. Accepting this change is the first step towards digital maturity. For organisations, the changes are more significant.
Malicious comments, misjudged social media posts and bad reviews can all damage the reputation of organisations. A 2014 survey commissioned by reputation management specialists Igniyte, looked at how much emphasis businesses in the UK place on online reputation.
Of the 500 entrepreneurs and top decision makers surveyed, 52% said their companies had been adversely affected by negative content online. Content posted by competitors was identified as the most common cause for concern, followed by malicious postings from discontented former employees.
Bad reviews, unhappy employees, and negative media coverage were also found to be common issues faced by businesses today. Almost 9% of managers said that their companies have lost between € 50.000 and € 100.000 as a direct result of negative content online, while 24% were up to € 10.000 out of pocket. Another 20% said their online reputation has cost them closer to € 50.000.
During EuropCom, a conference on public communication that I attended in October 2015 in Brussels, Paul Konsbrück, communications advisor to the prime minister of Luxemburg, referred to the case of the President of Germany Christian Wulff. Several media reported about his connections with a number of wealthy entrepreneurs with whom he and his family spent their private vacations.
In December 2011, the German president intervened personally to try to stop the mass-circulation daily newspaper Bild from running a story about a private loan. This act damaged his credibility and exposed him to criticism. Several other German newspapers picked up the story which went viral.
Every hour, Spiegel Online had a new headline about the case. Finally, Christian Wulff resigned the same year. It is evident that the former president made a major communication mistake by calling a chief editor to stop the publication of an article. Online communication allows stories to go viral very fast.
In June 2015, BBC journalist Ahmen Khawaja, tweeted that Queen Elizabeth "has died." The reporter apparently considered a BBC rehearsal for the woman's death to be the real thing. Part of the repetition coincidentally occurred at a hospital that England's monarch was visiting for an annual check-up. Khawaja, realising her gaffe, immediately deleted the tweet and issued a "false alarm." She also claimed the mistake was the result of a "silly prank."
The BBC directly contradicted Khawaja’s explanation of a joke, saying the accidental tweet had been linked to the training exercise. In the meantime, the tweet went viral. The false news spread across social and traditional media, and some news organisations had to withdraw their related stories.
CNN was forced to recall the tweet it sent about the Queen being in the hospital, saying it was sent in error. The incident could have been avoided if the journalist hadn't used her personal Twitter account to report on the Queen. This is another case about the huge speed that news can go viral. A lot of criticism came in, affecting not only the BBC but also other major global media players.
The expansion of online communication platforms like social media, blogs, online media publications, etc., has given the floor to millions of people to share their opinions worldwide. In aadition, the global financial crisis of 2008 has revealed the large moral and institutional vacuum of the financial sector - especially Wall Street bankers - and the political world.
The crisis exposed serious weaknesses in the regulatory and supervisory frameworks of the financial markets. The developments of 2008 made it clear that action was needed to improve transparency and disclosure of risks being taken by different market players. The intensive debate about transparency, which followed the global crisis influenced online public criticism and led to a larger trivialisation.
Here are four ways to deal with online criticism in the 21st century:
Don't feed the trolls
Trolls are the people online who stir up trouble with a purpose, especially in social media communities. It is important to deal effectively with them, so they don't damage your reputation and sully your online presence. There is a difference between the occasional online critic and a troll. Ignore trolls when possible and use Facebook algorithms to boost smart comments. Using humor helps as well.
Consider the source
One of the valuable lessons I learned in my professional career is that your friends will not tell you the truth about professional issues. Most of the times, they will praise your efforts. Strangers can provide an invaluable service by evaluating your work honestly. This allows you to improve things. If you receive criticism concerning your organisation or yourself, first consider the source. Do they have a valid point to make? Is the person who is criticising you, qualified to do so?
Accept the particularities of online presence
Do your homework before posting anything. When in doubt, do not post it out. Aristotle said, “Criticism is something you can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” Whatever you create and put on the internet, even if it is one of most wonderful inventions in the world, some people will not like it.
Encourage constructive criticism and deliberation. Remain cordial, honest and professional at all times. Do not post anything you wouldn't want your stakeholders or colleagues to read and associate with you. Do not say negative things about your competitors. Avoid fights with angry clients online. Be very careful and diplomatic when communicating on topics such as religion and politics.