“Detecting, Preventing, and Mitigating Online Firestorms in Brand Communities”


A review of an article by Dennis Herhausen, Stephan Ludwig, Dhruv Grewal, Jochen Wulf, and Marcus Schoegel in the January 2015 issue of the Journal of Marketing

By Abimbola Kolawole-Ogunleye, DNP, FNP

During this time of unrest in the country, you should not take your eyes off business reputation.

Online complaints made by clients need close attention. As a small business owner, you wear multiple hats, which includes checking online reviews regularly. This could be an exceedingly difficult task for many business owners. Sooner or later, every business will experience a negative comment online. Knowing how to address it is imperative for the business. Therefore, this article, published in the Journal of Marketing, discusses important steps in addressing online complaints.


The study outlined in the journal looked at nearly 473,000 negative comments posted in the public Facebook communities of 89 U.S. firms in the S&P 500 from October 2011 through January 2016. Out of all posts evaluated in the study, 15,762, or 3%, went viral. The researchers identified several patterns, one of which was that posts containing intense emotions — especially “high-arousal” emotions such as anger, fear, anxiety, and disgust — were more likely than others to spread. If a client is expressing real anger in the heat of the moment, the clinic needs to conduct a risk assessment to identify the right response. Understanding what is being said and by whom is critical to formulating a response. Is this client an influencer in an online community? Remember the goal is to calm a firestorm.


You should always respond to negative posts quickly. Ignoring the post or not addressing fast enough could give other customers time to support the complaint. In responding to the complaint, your response should fall in one or more of the following categories: moving the conversation to a private channel, apologize, provide an explanation, expressed empathy, or offer compensation. The question is, what is the best way of responding to the post? The short answer to this question is: it depends. According to the article, “Apologies and requests to switch to a private channel generally lowered virality, as long as they were communicated right away.” Offering to compensate an unhappy customer had the opposite effect — a result that took researchers by surprise. Expert opinion is mixed regarding the use of compensation as a service-recovery tool; it might ease a complaining customer’s frustrations, but if companies suggest compensation immediately, other members of the community may see it as an opportunity to post a complaint in the hope of receiving something from the company themselves. Generally, early expressions of empathy were more effective than explanations, but there was an important exception: posts reflecting an unusual degree of high-arousal emotions. If customers are extremely upset, an empathetic reply may feed their agitation, whereas a rational, fact-based explanation often helps cool them down.


The fact is, not all complaints can be contained. In situations like this, the company needs to adapt its strategies. Each situation must be addressed differently to reach a positive resolution.

Having someone in charge of an online complaint is critical. Even though you may have an employee in charge, the response should be a team effort. A small clinic owner might need to embark on the journey of addressing online complaints on a regular basis, while a bigger company may have someone dedicated to handle issues that arise from complaints. Outsourcing this service to other companies is also another avenue to address online complaint. Regardless of the method chosen to handle the complaint, the most important factor is ensuring it is addressed timely. 

Abimbola Kolawole-Ogunleye, DNP, FNP, is the owner of Divine Family Practice and Urgent Care In Fayetteville, North Carolina. She can be reached at Abimrn@yahoo.com.

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