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Haters gonna hate! How to handle negative feedback on the internet.

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“Hey Jim, I wanted to let you know your first post was live. Thanks again and I can’t wait to read more.”

The email came from my new editor Aaron over at Salary.com, where I’d signed on to write a few columns per month. I was excited to see my first post, which was titled “Foul Ball: How One Interview Question Can Lose You the Job.”

It was a fun little article that really dug into a single aspect of my intern hiring process when I was at Wired. In a nutshell, after listing quite a few qualifications that I was looking for in a candidate, from marketing savvy to technical know-how, just for fun, at the end of the ad I listed a bonus question: What is my favorite baseball team?

The goal was two-fold. First, to continue the fun tone of the posting and to find someone that had a sense of humor, and second, to see how many candidates utilized their internet research skills to get the answer.

The article goes on to describe how that single question surprisingly worked as an amazing reflection of the quality of candidates that made it through to the next round.

When I scrolled to the bottom of the article, I saw that there were several comments, and that’s when my heart skipped a beat. Let me share some with you:

The Haters

“I’m sorry, but this article makes you sound like a narcissist.”

“Sorry, but this article makes you seem like a megalomaniac.”

“I agree this article makes you sounds like a d-bag that no woman in her right mind would want to work under.”

“I read the piece… My deduction is that it was written by a stuck up self serving pompous person who considers himself to be “corporate elite”… I can only imagine what it would be like to have the author as an immediate supervisor.”

“You should be ashamed of yourself! This article really makes you sound like a horrible person!”

“Such an arrogant little man.”

Ouch. Those are some pretty pointed comments, right? What’s interesting is that salary.com uses Facebook comments, so the old defense that people are cruel on the internet is because they are anonymous doesn’t hold. Maybe that was worse! I could actually SEE the photos of the people looking back at me!

My first and most immediate concern was that I had written something technically incorrect or false or offensive.

Right now I am writing up to 10 articles a month, writing and responding to 5 different email accounts, managing 2 Facebook pages, a LinkedIn profile, Foursquare check-ins, and 3 Twitter accounts. Sometimes I write early in the morning before I’ve had coffee. Sometimes I write at 2am when my brain is shot after a full day. I am going to make mistakes.

Also, more and more of our opinions are displayed in the public eye, and with the 24-hour news cycle that we live in, people notice. It could be a politician with a camera phone or a talkshow host on the radio. One slip and you’re done.

Look at the example of comedian Gilbert Gottfried. His IMDB lists him in more than 100 titles. He was an Aflac spokesman for more than 10 years. He had sent more than 3,000 tweets. But he was fired based on a handful of inappropriate jokes on twitter. He’s a comedian!

Gottfried Aflac

It had a little while since I had received such immediate feedback from my writing, and to be honest, I climbed out on the ledge a bit, firing off an email to several trusted sources to get their take.

The Feedback

The editor: My first email was to Aaron. Because this was my first post on his site, I wanted his advice on how they handled things. Do they delete comments? Ignore them? Respond to them? Should I clarify something in the article? His advice was that his writers often jumped into the comments to interact with the readers, but advised me “not to start a flame war.”

Mentor 1:
My next email was to one of my mentors at Conde Nast. I knew she’d be uniquely qualified to give me the perspective from the company angle to see if I had stepped over the line somewhere.

Former interns: Next, I went right to the source. Those close to me know that mentorship is a huge part of my lifestyle, and that I stay in touch with people that have worked for me. I wanted to get their take on the matter, and make sure I had the facts straight.

Friends and family: This was more of just sharing the story and looking for a little sympathy. The majority of the feedback was of the “Eh, ignore the haters” variety. My friend Phil said “Welcome to the World Wide Web. I’m a bit surprised you would send me an e-mail asking me about this, but I can also understand why. You of all people know that once you’re in a position like the one you’re in, and once your work is exposed to the masses, there’s BOUND to be a portion of the online population who you’re going to rub the wrong way. Don’t listen.”

Mentor 2: Finally, I had great talk with the current mentor that I speak with weekly, who helped me re-focus and put everything into perspective.

In the end, I’m actually a little embarrassed how much I let it get to me. I know from the book Strengths Finder that my personality has a cruel twist of fate… one of my strong characteristics is that I am comfortable teaching people and putting my opinions out there, but another is that I can be more hyper-aware about what others think about me.

The most important thing you can do from this, or any experience, is to learn from it. Here is what I suggest:

How to react to negative comments:

1) Ask questions
The first thing to do is go back and re-read what you posted.
– Is there anything you said that was inaccurate? If so, move quickly to correct it.

– Did you accidently say something that could be offensive? If so, issue a genuine apology.

– Is there any truth to their comments? You might have to dig deep to look at this one. Am I a horrible person, a terrible manager, or a little man? No. But could I be considered a narcissist? Well, lets look at the facts. I’m first born, I’m a Leo, I enjoy public speaking, and I started a blog and podcast in order to spread my ideas to anyone that wishes to listen. So while I don’t enjoy the term narcissist, lets just say I am not shy when it comes to expressing my opinions.

2) Consider the source
A comment from a CEO on a NY Times column should be weighed more heavily than one from BiggButtz93 on YouTube.

My mentor sent me an article called Is everyone entitled to their opinion? from Seth Godin, which sums it up very nicely.

seth godin commenting

If you like, you can also go deeper. What do you think the commenter was really feeling when they lashed out? I realized that my post was on a job-oriented website, and the gist of the column was a tricky interview question. It’s easy to take the leap to assume that some of the readers of that site might be suffering through a long bout of unemployment during this recession, and feel that the hiring process is fixed against them.

3) Have a plan
Look at your type of writing, your level of exposure, and your personality and have a plan.
– Are you the type to simply say “I will never read the comments.”
– Perhaps you’ll take the middle ground and read over the comments quickly to get some feedback, but not react to them.
– A third way to go is to jump right in and go toe-to-toe with the audience, explaining your side and engaging in a conversation.

If the discourse is happening on your own blog, or you are a community manager of a major brand, it’s helpful to have a policy in place. Have a terms of service that outlines what is and is not acceptable from users.

4) How to respond
If you do decide to wade into the shark-infested waters, do so with purpose. I can’t explain how important it was for me to have a support team in place to first get the perspective of those I really trusted.

Shark infested waters

The next thing you might want to do is to step away and give it some time. That can be extremely hard to do when people are attacking your brand, and there are times when you’ll want to respond immediately.

However, in my case, as the article circulated to a wider audience, a funny thing happened. As people saw the negative feedback and looked closely at the article, they stepped in to defend me. If I had come to the site 24 hours after it posted, I would have seen that only 20% of the feedback was negative, as opposed to the 80% when it first launched.

A good phrase to keep in mind regarding this is “Dilute, don’t delete.” What this means is that in most cases, you should not delete the vitriolic comment. This only serves to “feed the trolls” and make them angrier. Far better to have 5 positive comments appear to outweigh the 1 negative one.

The exception to this is when the comment is truly offensive. Where to draw the line? This is something you can outline in the policy in step 3. For example, some sites may ban comments if they contain profanity, threaten other users, or reveals personal information.

When replying, swallow your pride and leave your ego at the door. Respond from a position of helpfulness.

5) What it means
What could possibly be a positive outcome to people attacking your character? Well, it could mean that you’ve taken things to another level. Elvis Presley, MLK, JFK, and just about every other musician, politician, writer, or celebrity will tick SOMEONE off when presenting an alternative viewpoint. Congratulations, you’ve struck a chord.

A hearty discord mans you’re sparking conversation, moving people to action, and growing as a content creator. Trust your gut and use it as fuel to become even better.

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