Social Media & Employee Backlash: How to Respond to Criticism



One of the most surprising public relations kerfuffles to hit Goldman Sachs came on March 14th with Greg Smith’s exhortation in the now infamous New York Times Op-Ed, ‘Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs.’

“I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.”

Certainly not the glowing endorsement Goldman Sachs would prefer to celebrate from a veteran employee writing about his long-term engagement at one of the world’s biggest firms.  The very same day, the social mediascape was abuzz with the Internet Meme: ‘Why I am Leaving the Empire by Darth Vadar’ from The Daily Mash where Vadar explained that he was leaving The Empire because it was ‘one of the galaxy’s largest and most important oppressive regimes and it is too integral to galactic murder to continue to act this way.’  That same day, the parody was picked up by The Huffington Post and shared hundreds – if not thousands – of times on Facebook and Twitter.

Mr. Smith’s claim that a “decline in the firm’s moral fiber,” may inadvertently be the perfect language to inspire a satirical meme (perhaps disempowering Greg’s statement further), but his letter also inspired a larger debate from the community, as well as a number of former Goldman Sachs employees. Some explained that they felt his approach was the wrong way to make such a statement, while others believed it could serve as a catalyst for change.

This all begs the question: How do companies anticipate and respond to employee backlash in social media? A company must not only anticipate these potential corporate commotions, but it must also predict how they might be handled in the social space.

4 Key Tips: Responding to Employee Backlash

1. Run a Training Session and be prepared with an Employee Response Statement and Risk Response Matrix. You wouldn’t take off on a flight without going through Emergency Procedures, would you? So, whereas you may not be able to predict what employees will say once they resign or get fired, you can run a training session based on employee feedback surveys to develop your potential messaging, as well as a response matrix to clearly define the chain of command. In the current landscape of immediate communication, knowing what messages are approved prior to a mishap, as well as who ultimately signs off on the response should be clearly designated.

2. Take ownership for certain negative truths that mirror employee survey sentiment. There’s nothing worse than pretending that everything about one’s company is perfect. It’s akin to being married to a stubborn spouse who never admits fault. We all know how that ends… in an ugly divorce.

3. Highlight 2-3 specifics about how your company’s positive culture will address the negative commentary to improve. Having 2-3 specifics is always more authentic than what sounds like an open-ended form letter.  Greg Smith stated, “It might sound surprising to a skeptical public, but culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients…” Although Mr. Smith went on to express his belief that this culture no longer existed, a company could benefit from expressing that, as with any relationship, they are listening to this feedback because listening, too, is an instrumental part of its culture.

4. Invite the detractor to contribute to the company’s ongoing improvement. This is one of the best methods of re-establishing credibility and loyalty, evidenced by companies like Dell.  They took negative feedback from customer service complaints to launch Direct2Dell, a forum for Q&As.

As social media has opened up the direct lines of communication to have a dialogue with your fans, it’s more imperative than ever that companies and communication professionals not only listen to their customers, but also respond to them in a clear, definable way. Whether a marriage is between a couple – or a company and its customer – we must listen, respond quickly, and work with those who give us their money, time, and loyalty to ensure that we deliver the best we can. Otherwise, there will always be someone more sensitive to our needs willing to go that extra mile. This is how you increase market share. This is how you build a relationship meant to last.

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Layla Revis

VP - Digital Influence Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide Layla Revis began her career in the Hollywood trenches at Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and Warner Brothers Studios. She has served as a Vice-President at Hollywood-based entertainment marketing agencies specializing in feature film and television and has written and conceptualized advertising campaigns for high-profile clients including: E! Entertainment, Discovery Networks, Miramax, and Sony. As a journalist for more than ten years, she has also covered media, marketing, and emerging trends in entertainment and tourism as a Columnist and Contributing Editor at several publications including: Los Angeles Confidential Magazine, GenArt, Teen Vogue, Town + Country, and Surface Magazine. In 2007, she founded two online travel blogs, and, to cover luxury travel and stylish, eco-friendly goods for the modern adventurer. Most recently, she led grassroots social media marketing initiatives in the United Kingdom for the non-profit sector as NGO’s transitioned from traditional marketing to the social media space. She brings her understanding and passion for media and marketing to Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide because she believes that “innovation is the last refuge of the revolutionary.” Revis was awarded a Distinction from The London School of Economics where she achieved a Master’s of Science in Media and Development and holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Pennsylvania in English Literature.