Sticks and Stones

Morgan O'Rourke


May 1, 2011

A question that comes up frequently when discussing social media is what to do when you are the subject of negative comments online. It is an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, the freedom and openness of social media platforms are what makes them so valuable and popular. On the other hand, being open also means exposing yourself to a wide range of opinions, and owing to the generally snarky nature of a lot of internet commentary, there is a good chance some of this feedback will be negative.

So does this mean that companies should rethink their involvement with social media? After all, it is one thing to be the subject of public criticism, but it's another thing entirely to willingly provide the forum for your own public excoriation. Regardless of how thin-skinned your organization may be, however, the benefits of being part of an open social media environment likely outweigh the drawbacks. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't proceed with caution.

Take, for example, a recent incident that demonstrates what not to do when faced with a negative review. Jacqueline Howett is an independent author who self-published a handful of e-books including her latest, The Greek Seaman, a romantic adventure about a newlywed and her sailor husband aboard a ship full of smugglers. In mid-March, the book received a negative review for its many spelling and grammatical errors on BigAl's Books and Pals, a little-known book review blog. Howett responded to the criticism with increasingly vitriolic, expletive-laden posts (that were, ironically, full of spelling and grammatical errors) directed at both the original reviewer and the many commenters that joined the discussion in his defense.
The comment section exploded with readers denouncing Howett's lack of professionalism and vowing never to read anything by her again. Eventually, the blog disabled the comment section, but not before it had passed the 300 comment mark in a matter of days -- a major achievement for a blog that, in its three-month existence, had never seen more than a handful of comments on any one post. Obviously Howett's behavior touched a nerve with the blog's readers.

Unfortunately for the author, the damage did not stop there. The incident quickly went viral as readers posted links to the review and response on Twitter, Facebook and other blogs. Eventually, the story even made its way to more mainstream sites like and The impact was especially apparent on, where before the BigAl review, the book had largely gone unnoticed with only three reviews, at least one of which was likely from a family member. But by the end of March, The Greek Seaman had more than 100 reviews and a one-and-a-half star rating (out of five) due to the nearly 80 single-star reviews that appeared after the BigAl incident. Howett's other books also suffered collateral damage as negative reviews began to dominate their ratings as well.

While the trials and tribulations of Jacqueline Howett are only a small-scale example of the destructive power of the online horde, the lessons that this incident teaches are applicable to any company with an active internet presence. Not all criticism merits a response. If Howett had accepted the negative review and said nothing, none of this would ever have happened. BigAl's blog wasn't popular enough at the time to garner any sort of attention on its own and, besides, the review seemed fairly accurate. But instead, the author chose to respond inappropriately and, in doing so, likely sabotaged her career as a respectable writer. Because even after the public has moved on to the next scandal, Howett's meltdown will be preserved on search engines forever. It's probably time to look for a pen name.

This story boils down to an adage that we all learned in kindergarten. Namely, "sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me." If someone has something negative to say, it is usually best to be the bigger person (or company) and simply walk away. Choose your battles wisely. Because the reality is that the internet doesn't care about your schoolyard rhymes. If given the chance, it will gladly find a way to make its words hit harder than sticks and stones ever could.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)