Tips for tranquilizing the online trolls and responding to reviews

To silence social media snipers, discretion is usually the better part of valor. After all, strident rebuttals usually cause more collateral damage than they’re worth. Some smear campaigns, however, need to be parried.

“You have to respond very quickly, before things get out of hand,” says Durée Ross, president of the PR firm Durée & Company. “Years ago, we used to have hours or days for such things. Now, it’s seconds.”

Whether your style is confrontational or passive, mastering the delicate art of appeasing disgruntled guests is worth the effort. To start, public relations pros offer some guidance about how to deal with the most common trolls.

Character Type: The Misguided Crusader

About a year ago, a mother of a disabled child demanded to sit on a restaurant’s patio and park her double stroller in a spot blocking a fire exit. Staff refused because it violated the local fire code. In response, the mother wrote a blistering Facebook post, claiming discrimination against her disabled child.

• The Danger: Small dust-ups can grow into digital brush fires
On Facebook, a single complaint can snowball with unprecedented speed. In this case, the mother’s post went viral after it was reshared by friends and other groups. Some even called for a boycott, especially when the mother shared her post with a local TV station.

• The Solution: Apologize, then mobilize The restaurant spotted the post and immediately called Ross, who drafted a response on Facebook. The restaurant still apologized, even though it was following the code: “We are deeply sorry for the recent guest feedback at our restaurant. We have been in contact with the family to discuss the situation. We are committed to providing the very best experience for all guests and we regret this experience fell short of expectations.” Ross worked behind the scenes to explain the fire code to the TV station, cutting the boycott off before it could gain traction.

Character Type: The Overzealous Advocate

During a staged protest, there’s little that can be done to halt a demonstration, says Andrew Freeman, founder of af&co., a consulting firm in San Francisco – even if there’s little validity to the complaint. Case in point: a screaming animal-rights activist carrying baby chickens at one of Freeman’s restaurant clients while berating staff and diners for serving and eating poultry.

• The Danger: Inaction can be perceived as weakness
Thanks to cell phone videos and social media, the shelf life and potential impact of a boycott can be dangerous. Listening to the concerns of advocates is one thing, but failing to respond to an abusive party will make it look like you tolerate despicable behavior, which will turn away peace-seeking diners.

• Solution: Fight fire with values

Freeman’s client countered with a value-driven message of its own on their social channels. They posted a statement about the farm, providing evidence it treated its chickens humanely and used sustainable protocols. The move doused whatever sympathy the protester amassed, while gaining likes on social media.

Character Type: The Yelp Extortionists

Some diners will do anything for free food, including fabricating complaints on review platforms such as Yelp. Separating valid comments from phony ones is critical. When a loyal diner posted a negative Yelp review on Simsim Outstanding Shawarma, a fast-casual restaurant in San Diego, California, it turned out to be true: some sauces had been omitted. Owner Nawar Miri responded swiftly, verifying the incident with his staff and then contacting the diner privately. But in other cases, some complaints have been flat-out fake.

• The Danger: It’s a catch 22
If you refuse to respond, it looks like you don’t care about diners’ concerns. Start a dialogue and try to take the conversation offline. If you offer a free meal publicly, everyone will want one. Even if a complaint seems suspicious, respond with an apology. An example from Ross: “We are committed to providing the very best experience for all guests and we regret your experience fell short of expectations.” You can also say you’re looking into the issue, she adds.

• The Solution
Respond to all complaints – and even acknowledge positive reviews with a thank you. “I try to offer more than what they ordered to get them to come back,” says Miri. “Since it doesn’t happen very often, giving away one free meal is a small price to pay to know that we did our part to hopefully win the guest back.”