Think of a viral video/photo. Say, ‘githeri man’, think about how many people got to see a man who was simply queuing to vote while enjoying his meal, and whose image spread  like a wildfire, on social media. How he lightened up a country tense after a polarizing electoral campaign, and how as a result, his life’s fortunes changed, all from a picture taken in jest.


That’s the positive side of a viral photo/video. Think about the negative aspect, like United Airlines, who had to offer a passenger, who got filmed being forcefully evicted from his seat, a huge settlement to avoid legal battles.  Locally, dissatisfied clients have caused brands to attract the wrath of the online community. With huge amounts of the population having smartphones, a photo/video shared can have businesses instantly dealing with PR disasters, especially where little questions on the back story are asked, and where an element of mob justice is practiced. As a brand or business person, some complaints will be genuine, and there will be a need to apologise, but there will also be instances where clients have unfairly targeted you. How do you go through a PR disaster and come out with as little damage as possible?


The first thing is to review the complaint wholly, and resist the urge to delete the comment, or ignore it. Say you own an electrics shop, and a client posts on your page claiming they got sold substandard goods when you know, and believe in their quality. Deleting the comment will only stoke the fire and escalate a situation you’d have potentially dealt with amicably, into a full-blown disaster. At this point, you want to acknowledge the complaint, ask for the date of purchase, location (if you have branches) and apologize for the experience the client had.

After that, the next step is to be cautious and aware that misrepresentation might occur, and let the client know that you are handling their complaint is important not only to the immediate client, but to others who will read the thread and have different perceptions depending on how you handle the situation. Here, you would ask the client to give details about the specific malfunction, and once established, return the faulty device for inspection and give an assurance that depending on the extent of the damage, repair or replacement will be done.


Having the client feel attended to is important, and this means you can’t have your intern, unless they are very experienced, handling the complaint. Depending on the scale of the complaint, then the feedback will have to come from higher up the leadership. In this scenario, a faulty electrical appliance complaint, if well-handled, can be dealt with by a sales representative, but a mass supply of light bulbs to an institution that then turned out faulty, a response and assurance from the brands top leadership will exhibit more commitment than from the sales rep. Different scenarios will require different responses.


Capitalizing on the buzz generated, and being real can work well in some instances, except those touching on mortality. Last year, the American Red Cross had an employee send out a tweet on its official twitter handle, about buying beer, and getting drunk. After initial backlash, the tweet was pulled down, an apology rendered and the organization even managed to turn the conversation into avoiding drunk driving. Depending on the scale of the complaint, engaging and appealing to social media influencers can work excellently, if their lifestyle is representative of your brand.


Finally, learning from other brands on the handling of mishaps can help you when you have to deal with a mishap of your own. You can follow pages, whose brands are in industries where there are a lot of complaints, like banking (system failures and misunderstood costs), service providers (delays and perceived poor quality of products) and food industry (hygiene and service complaints) are good places to learn first hand how to deal with complaints. At the end of the day, your handling of PR disasters can either severely dent your image, or give you an opportunity to deal with aggrieved customers and gain the confidence of existing ones.