Criticism comes your way for one reason

First in a three part series about how to respond to criticism as a professional communicator. Feelings included.

If you’re writing on behalf of your company, organisation or group, you may well find yourself communicating bad news, or at least disappointing news for your employees, shareholders, members or supporters.

Plans get delayed; organisation structures get reorganised; software fails; decisions are reversed and overturned. Things, basically, can go wrong. As an excellent communicator it’s your job to keep your constituents informed, to provide trustworthy comms and create conversations with those that care.

That means you’ll be taking feedback on behalf of your organisation…

Criticism stings. When in a restaurant, you and I know not to be too ugly should we need to complain about the food. Our readers have no such restraint when it comes to sharing their displeasure.

Perhaps there are three main groups of people who complain:

  1. people who wish to share their displeasure at the latest news / change;
  2. people who want you to know you’ve made an error;
  3. people who hate you and the organisation you represent and wish to cause you harm.

I’ll discuss the first group of people today, the second tomorrow and the third the day after – so make sure you come on Friday to see what I have to say about trolls!

Criticism of the company your communciations represents

The first group may well have real cause for complaint, and their feedback might well be incredibly valuable. As the communicator, you’re in the firing line. Don’t take it personally, but don’t shrug it off either. You might feel like responding with “I’m only the messenger” but that’s not useful – you are the representative of your company, and it’s your job to create conversations with your constituents. You might even agree with the complainant – it’s quite quite possible that they are correct, and that your company is doing something unpleasant for reasons you’re not certain about.

Your personal feelings are irrelevant, except when they allow you to genuinely empathise with someone. In any case, you need to respond to the complainant with respect and compassion. Let them know you’ve heard and understood them by reflecting back some of their issues and language to them, and then offer them a little further information or explanation from the company you represent. Let them know that you’ll pass their feedback upwards and it will be considered, but don’t promise to change the company’s direction – you’re not a decision maker on this topic, you’re the communicator, and a bridge between the company and everyone.

The one reason that criticism comes your way is that you’re visible.

Much of the business, much of your company can seem hidden from most people on the ground – you may think that there are plenty of feedback routes and ‘speak out’ channels to engage your workforce, but many people are wary of using these channels, and lots of feedback is stifled by line managers.

When you publish or distribute news or announcements that affect your people, you’re making yourself visible. Your audience may not feel comfortable contacting the CEO, named as the ‘author’ of your announcement, but they may well feel better about emailing you as the publisher / distributor.

As a professional communicator, you’re more visible than other people in your organisation – you might even become ‘famous’ (or infamous) within your business, more so than some of the decision makers who seem shrouded in ignorance, mystery and the shields of meetings.

Whatever feedback you get, accept that it’s not directly aimed at you and continue to be a professional communicator when you respond.

Tomorrow I’ll reflect on how to respond when people point out errors in our communications, including grammatical arguments and mistakes that are beyond our control.

  1. Outstanding, Wedge. You have given an excellent overview for anyone in the communicator position. It is also a good reminder for those of us running very small companies to put on the communicator hat and with it, some emotional distance between ourselves and the complaints we do receive.

    I’m eagerly awaiting the two remaining installments.

  2. Thanks for reading – if we communicate as part of our role, we’ll get criticism and feedback, it just comes with the territory.

    It would be worse to be communicating into a vacuum – imagine if we had no readers, no constituents, no clients, no customers!

    Criticism can be valuable, and it’s certainly evidence of an engaged audience (yay!) but we’ll consider really negative stuff tomorrow and Friday :)

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