We’ve all seen the dumpster fire that can erupt when a company mishandles a sour comment on Facebook, or Twitter, or wherever.

It’s avoidable.

There are three golden steps for handling this kind of situation:

1. Respond in a timely manner. If your response takes longer than 12 hours, you’ve likely gone too long and you might already have a fire on your hands. If your brands (people, products, events, etc.) get enough volume of mentions overall, use a tool to listen to the social web and keep an ear open for developing situations. We like Mention.

2. Empathize first, state your case second. Whenever possible, begin by empathizing with the person posting the negative comment. No, seriously. Give them benefit of the doubt (for now) and try to step into their shoes. Feelings are real even when they’re not rational.

“We’re very sorry. I can understand how ______ would be super frustrating for you.” Add a one-sentence detail to prove you’ve tried on their shoes, something like “I was upset last time [something like this] happened to me, so I definitely don’t want this for you.”

Then, clearly state your side of the story. Be honest (within reason). But above all, stay polite, concise, and oriented towards solutions.

3. Move to a private channel. If possible, move the conversation somewhere that the entire planet can’t watch. This could be a Direct Message app like Facebook Messenger or your customer service phone line. Or an email if you have to. Just take it safely out of view.

While further replies on this negative thread might require that you respond again, think twice before diving back in. You’ve stated your side of the story in Step 2 above; if you have nothing truly substantial to add, bite your tongue. Often, your existing customers and brand advocates will jump in to defend you.

Whatever you do, don’t start a flame war in the thread. You always get burned, even when you (think you) won.

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