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The Streisand effect: how to respond to a bad review

  1. The Streisand estate
    California Coastal Records Project
    Ray Newman

    Ray Newman UKBF Regular Staff Member

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    It can be tempting to come back hard at negative reviews of your business, especially when they feel unfair or untrue, but in most cases, it’s a tactic that backfires.

    The Streisand Effect is a product of the internet age.

    In 2003, the singer and actress Barbra Streisand launched legal action against a photographer who, in taking a helicopter shot of the California coast, incidentally captured a shot of her beachfront home Malibu.

    Jealous of her privacy, lawyers acting on her behalf wanted the image taken offline. Unfortunately, the $10 million lawsuit itself became a story.

    As a result, the photograph, which had previously been viewed only a handful of times and wasn’t connected with her in the accompanying copy, began to garner huge volumes of traffic from people who wanted to know how her patio was laid out.

    By the time the suit was settled, in the photographer’s favour, an estimated half a million people had viewed the image.

    Then in 2005, journalist Mike Masnick covered the case of a hotel resort which had demanded that its name be removed from the caption on a single image on a website dedicated to photographs of urinals. Hardly anybody was interested in the photo until the takedown notice was issued, at which point urinals.net went viral. Masnick wrote at TechDirt:

    How long is it going to take before lawyers realize that the simple act of trying to repress something they don't like online is likely to make it so that something that most people would never, ever see (like a photo of a urinal in some random beach resort) is now seen by many more people? Let's call it the Streisand Effect.

    This usage stuck and poor Ms. Streisand became the poster woman for this 21st century phenomenon.

    The relevance of Streisand to SMEs

    If you’re operating a small to medium-sized business, there’s a lesson to learn here: making legal threats, or otherwise attempting to suppress negative publicity, may well do more harm than good.

    Engaging with bad reviews or wallowing in self pity, by sharing them on your Facebook account with snarky commentary, will just bring them to the attention of more people.

    And the chances are, your clever comeback won’t look as witty in black and white as it sounds in your head, especially to people who don’t know you in person.

    It’s all too easy to shoot for Oscar Wilde but land on Basil Fawlty.

    When raging works

    Of course there are exceptions, such as Gary Usher, the chef behind Sticky Walnut in Hoole, Cheshire, and other restaurants in the North West of England.

    An unyielding critic of TripAdvisor in particular, he has gained a reputation for ‘calling out’ customers who leave bad reviews on the travel website, as in this case:

    After the arrival of your main course you took it upon yourself to judge it as “not fresh” and “gone off”. I don’t need to explain to you how fresh our produce is. We have based our whole business around it. What I will explain is that during 20 years of professional cooking I have regularly seen guests who order a dish which they subsequently decide is not to their liking. Very often they will then complain to a member of staff to the effect of “I don’t like it” but in your case it was “the fish smells funny”. We sent out 16 “smelly” bream that night. The other 15 were apparently surprisingly odourless – and fresh.

    Usher gets away with this kind of thing, and generates huge amounts of publicity off the back of it, because his critics are outnumbered by people love his food and appreciate his approach.

    His responses read to most people as sincere and passionate, the roar of the underdog, and so support rather than undermine the appeal of the Sticky Walnut brand.

    For most of us, though, a more measured approach is probably best. 

    Grow and learn

    However rudely expressed, however bad they might make you feel, you could think of bad reviews as business intelligence with the potential to make you stronger.

    More often than not, no response is necessary. One bad, unhelpful review among many good ones will be outweighed and eventually disappear if you just ignore it. (Think Streisand.)

    If you really feel you need to answer (which is easy to do on Google, TripAdvisor, Amazon, eBay and on most other websites where reviews pop up) be the bigger person.

    First, apologise, and mean it.

    When I ran a customer complaints unit a decade or so ago, one of my specialities was saying sorry without defensiveness: “It’s absolutely unacceptable that our reply to you mentioned Bournemouth when you actually live in Brighton. I take full responsibility. I’m really sorry.”

    Invariably, something like that completely defused the situation so we could move on and deal with the issue at hand.

    When apologising, avoid weasel phrases such as “I’m sorry you feel that our service wasn’t up to scratch”, or passive-aggression: “I’m sorry you weren’t able to appreciate the sophisticated nature of our very successful flagship product.”

    Secondly, by all means correct factual errors – “We do have baby-changing facilities.”

    Finally, explain what you did to resolve the problem: “Based on your feedback, I’m going to install clearer signs today and make sure my team knows to point out the baby-changing room to visitors with young children.” This is as much for the benefit of potential future customers as for the author of the bad review.

    PR opportunities

    There’s a real opportunity to turn a negative review to your advantage if you handle it well.

    A calm, pleasant, reasonable response not only cancels out a one-star rating but also enhances your business’s brand.

    It’s a chance to demonstrate that you’ve got nothing to hide, that you care and that you respond to the needs of your clients.

    After all, nobody’s perfect, but how we handle ourselves in a crisis counts for a lot.

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