Dealing with negative feedback


Following on from the short piece I posted last week about dealing with negative comments (which was taken from a museum social media handbook I am writing), I have now expanded this in to this blog post. Thanks to those who took the time to share their experience in comments on the first post, I hope many more people will share there feedback on this subject in the comments below.

The latest social media applications for mobile phones make it easy for people to make comments on the move, and these are often flippant, throw-away remarks.

In truth we all make this kind of comment, whether we aren’t happy with having to queue in a shop or whether we don’t like the food in a restaurant, we don’t think twice about these kind of remarks and they often are forgotten as soon as we have made them.

While in the past this kind of comment might have been made to a handful of friends, social media amplifies every complaint, broadcasting them to anyone searching on for a related subject on Google, sometimes for years to come.

While this idea may seem like a good reason not to venture on to social media platforms, it is worth remembering that these comments would appear on social media platforms whether your organisation is active on them or not.

By engaging with users on social media websites you can influence the way that your institution is seen by the communities which exist on these websites. One of the ways that you will do this is by being seen to take negative comments seriously and responding to complaints.

For me, the most positive implication of social media making everyday complaints more visible is that it gives us feedback that we would not have previously had access to, and makes it possible for us to learn from our audiences.

A museum which welcomes constructive criticism and responds by constantly striving to improve is only going to become better, and for an organisation with this mindset, social media can be invaluable.

So, while you don’t need to take negative feedback to heart, you do need to take all comments serious and be seen to act.

How to reply to complaints
How you deal with feedback will depend on your organisation, and how comfortable the management are with social media. Some museums believe that to be truly transparent, they need to answer any complaint made through social media on the platform that the remark has been made, so that other users can see that you are taking feedback seriously, and to invite further debate on the subject.

This level of transparency will not suit every museum, and I believe that it is important not to overstretch your organisation.

The more conservative approach to negative feedback would be to acknowledge the complaint in the public arena of the social media space that it has been made, and to invite the individual who has made the comment to discuss their concern via email, telephone or in person.

To me this is a safer starting point for a museum looking at social media, it makes the venue seem responsive, but lets the organisation deal with the complaint in private, just as the museum would with a complaint made in a venue.

It is worth remembering that it is easier for a museum to start with a more conservative approach and then move towards a more transparent model, rather than the other way around. The most important thing is that the organisation takes onboard feedback and develops a culture of continual improvement to benefit from the knowledge that it’s audiences have chosen to share with it.

Who should deal with complaints will depend on your organisation and the seriousness of what has been said, as most social media spaces are person to person networks, you may choose to address a complaint as an individual working within your organisation, or you may prefer to respond as the museum.

Both routes have there advantages and disadvantages, while it may seem more official to respond as the organisation, this can also jar with the informal nature of these platforms and that in turn, can make the museum seem distant and out of touch.

Personally I feel that it is better to approach a complaint as an individual working for the museum, rather then the museum itself, I feel this makes it easier to build relationships and to build the perception of your organisation being a collection of passionate individuals rather then a faceless institution.

If someone does make a negative comment you may decide that it isn’t appropriate to respond. Much of what takes place in a museum can be interpreted differently by different people and you may choose to ignore a negative response to an exhibition and leave that conversation to be debated by other members of the community.

One thing which you must be careful to avoid is a member of museum staff joining the conversation without identifying their link to the organisation. One example of this backfiring badly was when staff from the Southbank Centre in London added positive reviews of the stage production of The Wizard of Oz to

The Guardian newspaper reported in August 2008, that ‘Three posts expressed surprise at the criticism and lavished praise on the show. There was only one snag – the gushing paeans were written by staff at the Southbank Centre; just 75 minutes later, they were caught red-handed. A beady-eyed moderator noticed that the three rave reviews had all come from computers that shared the same IP address, the code that identifies an internet connection.’

The Southbank Centre later admitted that the three reviews had been written by their staff.

When to ignore comments
While most people will be pleased or even bemused to find that their complaint has been recognized by your museum, occasionally you might encounter someone who wishes to make a lot of noise for no real reason. The internet slang for this kind of activity is a ‘Troll’.

A Troll is less likely to make a complaint about your organisation, and more likely to try and be disruptive to your online communities, they may post off topic messages or inflammatory comments to try and deliberately provoke response.

Your starting point in dealing with a Troll, is to decide if they have a genuine point to make, or whether they are just trying to cause trouble. It is important to give them the chance to make a legitimate complaint and I would suggest that you invite them to do this via email, so that it can be dealt with officially. This is important to protect yourself from any claim that you have not given the individual a route to have their complaint heard.

If you do believe that the individual is being disruptive rather than trying to make a constructive criticism or comment then you have various ways in which you can deal with the problem depending on the social media platform.

If the trolling is taking place within a social network, then it is possible to ban a user from posting to your group, while moderation of blogs will allow you to delete any inappropriate comments before they are public.

Sometimes having a guide to acceptable behavior for community members can solve the problem, make it clear that your museum has a wide audience including children and that you can therefore not allow offensive language or vulgar comments to take place on your network.

Having these kind of guidelines also gives the community using these social networks a framework for policing itself, and you will often find that those breaking the rules will be told that they are out of line by other group members.

What to avoid
Ironically, one of the things which can cause the most negative response, is the way in which a museum is seen to deal with a complaint in the first place.

In 2009 New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz made a comment on Facebook about what he believed to be a very low representation of women artists on the 4th and 5th floors of MoMA. Kim Mitchell of MoMA sent Jerry Saltz a reply, which he posted on Facebook at her request.

“Hi all, I am (Kim Mitchell) Chief Communications Officer here at MoMA. We have been following your lively discussion with great interest, as this has also been a topic of ongoing dialogue at MoMA. We welcome the participation and ideas of others in this important conversation. And yes, as Jerry knows, we do consider all the departmental galleries to represent the collection. When those spaces are factored in, there are more than 250 works by female artists on view now. Some new initiatives already under way will delve into this topic next year with the Modern Women’s Project, which will involve installations in all the collection galleries, a major publication, and a number of public programs. MoMA has a great willingness to think deeply about these issues and address them over time and to the extent that we can through our collection and the curatorial process. We hope you’ll follow these events as they develop and keep the conversation going.”

MoMA are very active across the social media space, and it isn’t surprising to see them answering criticism and trying to take part in the conversation, but rather than this comment being seen in a positive way, it drew a lot of criticism not only from those participating in the Facebook conversation, but also on Twitter and in blog posts where people commented that the reply seemed impersonal, PR-like and that the institution was not interested in being part of the conversation. Others have defended the tone of Kim’s email saying that dealing with a ’serious and contentious complaint in a less formal way would have been incredibly bold’.

The response that MoMA have recieved to Kim Mitchell’s email could be enough to put any museum off the idea of proactively responding to criticism in the social media space, if an organisation perceived to be ahead of the curb can fall fowl of the conversation, then is it safe for any institution to respond to criticism on the web.

I personally feel that responding to comments about your museum, whether they are positive or not is essential. This will show that you’re listening, that you want people’s opinions and that this will build trust and social capital in your brand with your audiences.

The majority of feedback that you find written about your organisation on social media platforms is likely to be very positive, but positive action can come out of even the most negative comment, giving a museum the knowledge it needs to keep getting better.