The Nivea response also underlines that how you say something is nearly as important as what you say. Stick to the subject at hand, address it directly and don't get too far afield. Save any speculation or philosophizing about the subject for another venue -- that can smack of trying to change the subject. Most importantly, be transparent. Talk directly about what you did; don't just allude to it.
"Transparency is a derivative of the company's culture," says Brian Solis, principal at Altimeter Group and author of The End of Business as Usual. "As such, processes for admitting a mistake and attempting to fix it, as well as the openness required to instill trust and believability, will differ from company to company. What is consistent regardless of case is that transparency and sincerity always win."
Note also that your tone is only as good as the substance of your message. Netflix found itself in a public relations mess last July after briskly announcing radical changes to its pricing plan. Two months later, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings tried to use a folksy, personal tone to apologize for the brevity of the previous message and break the news about the reorganization of Netflix into two separate companies (one for streaming video and one for DVD rental).
The tone of his post may have been right, but the message it delivered showed the company still hadn't been listening to its own customers, who didn't want to manage two separate product queues across two different outfits. Customers remained upset until the company backed off from the plan in an even terser follow-up post. After that, things calmed down -- but perhaps not enough.
"In many ways, there was an opportunity to stick to message, to acknowledge and leave it be, and not introduce new elements," says DiMauro. "But the idea that he genuinely responded and acknowledged was good." Unfortunately, the Netflix subscriber base continues to suffer.
In cases where you're not specifically at fault -- for example, if your hotel has received a negative Yelp review from a disgruntled visitor -- your best bet is to use, whenever possible, the medium in question to respond directly to the critic. Many services currently allow the verified owner of a business to respond to negative comments, so use that -- it has a higher chance of being discovered by people who need to see it, and it makes you look that much more proactive and engaged. But remember, it's important not to be defensive -- acknowledge the complaint, even if you feel it's unjustified, and explain calmly how you are trying (or have tried) to ameliorate the situation.
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