Teaching Students to Keep Their Cool After a Public Insult

Consumer-review websites such as Yelp can be a boon or a bane to local businesses. They can help businesses with little or no advertising budget get exposure through positive word-of-mouth, but they can damage businesses when unhappy customers use the Internet to vent their frustrations.

When a bad review is justified, it can alert potential customers to consider other options and help the company improve its operations. However, an unfair negative review helps nobody. It can divert potential customers away from company that might well meet their needs, and it can inflict temporary or even lasting damage on a company that doesn't deserve it.

Unfair negative reviews can come in a variety of flavors, such as when consumers are at least partially at fault (e.g., ignoring product descriptions on an e-commerce site, ordering a product that clearly doesn't meet their needs, and then criticizing it), when a minor glitch in service is blown out of proportion, or when individuals use review websites as their personal creative-writing platforms and are more interested in being funny or snarky rather than honest and helpful.

Fortunately for unfairly maligned business owners, Yelp, TripAdvisor, and other sites give them the chance to respond. However, these scenarios do present one of the more difficult writing challenges a business owner is likely to face. Unlike an apology for poor service, for example, where the owner can express regret in a straightforward manner and perhaps offer some form of compensation, the unfair review requires a great deal of finesse. The owner's response needs to correct the misinformation without engaging the reviewer in a public argument. Moreover, maintaining a calm, professional tone can be a challenge when one's reputation and livelihood have been subjected to unfair insults.

Putting your students in the roles of maligned business owners can be great practice for writing clearly while keeping one's emotions under control. Have each student find a harsh negative review on Yelp or TripAdvisor and imagine that he or she is the owner of the business in question. The student should assume that the information in the review is factually incorrect and write a hypothetical response that corrects the misinformation without "taking the bait" of the emotional attack. Encourage students to really imagine just how upset hardworking business owners would be after seeing their names dragged through the mud. By role playing scenarios like this, students will get practice at keeping their emotions under control when they are unfairly criticized in any professional setting.