I recently dealt with a round of painful online reviews. I’m talking zero stars, abusive language, political baiting, you name it—basically a studio owner’s worst-case scenario flashing at me across multiple platforms. After 17 years of business leadership this certainly wasn’t my first time dealing with a bad review or two, but the level of vitriol and the wildfire spread of these particular posts knocked me momentarily off my center.
Previous to the online onslaught, I’d never been so happy to begin a fall session. After the roller coaster of pandemic lockdown, we were beyond ready to resume some kind of normal. We had been mask-optional at our two studios since July 5, our fall enrollment numbers were trending in the right direction, our physical spaces and staff had gotten some much-needed love after a year of austerity, and our families were enthusiastic about returning to after-school activities.
Unfortunately, the Delta variant had other plans, and due to the explosion of cases in our state I announced to our clientele that to keep our students safe we would be resuming our mask requirement on opening day. By itself this would have normally generated some mild pushback, but because of an email system glitch, some clients arrived for their first day of fall dance classes not having received the mask requirement message, which for a few people turned out to be (ahem) a very big deal.
Day one had gone as smoothly as an opening day could go, with the familiar happy chaos of parents chatting with teachers and dancers finding their classrooms for the first time. The phones were ringing off the hook with last-minute questions. My staff, always a well-oiled machine, was off to a flying start.
The joy was short-lived. Day two brought DEFCON 1-level customer service issues.
It started with a screaming altercation in one of our lobbies when an entire extended family targeted our office manager with their anger about being blindsided by the mask requirement, and it ended with more than one email threatening to drag us over every online channel available.
One family not only made good on their online threat but recruited others to defame me and my business. I felt like I was watching the reputation I’d spent years building go up in smoke in a matter of minutes. I spent the next two days hunched over my laptop with my jaw clenched as the notifications kept rolling in, praying that I would find the right words.
I’m happy to report the trolls have been silenced, at least for now. But here’s what I’m even happier to report.
After word of our online trouble got around, I received more supportive messages than I’ve ever gotten in any previous fall season. I lost my fear of asking for a good review and just did it. People flooded our online profiles with positive reviews and ratings that were sincere and authentic. I could feel my spirits lifting as I realized what a vocal minority those haters had been.
The takeaway here is that when you fight for what you believe in publicly, it’s not just your adversary who sees it. The people who support you also bear witness. The people who agree with you but until now have remained silent bear witness. Even complete strangers bear witness—I received a heartfelt email from an internet unknown who had read one of the bad reviews and saw my response. This person thanked me for keeping our students safe and encouraged me to seek defamation damages (I didn’t, on my attorney’s advice that this can create more problems than it solves).
I realized my agony over crafting those responses wasn’t for the bad people—it was for the good people. My audience was not the unhinged family who made my staff’s Tuesday so miserable—it was the witnesses on the sidelines who saw us rise up to meet our online attackers with grace and calm and conviction.
Let me be clear: this ordeal was not about our mask policy. No matter what your studio is doing with COVID protocols, the experienced among us know that keyboard warriors are ready to rumble over any perceived slight: they don’t like your pricing, your facility, your hours, your email response time. They smash that rate/review button without thinking.
Did I want to curl into a fetal position after reading these reviews? I did. But by taking the time to get control of my emotions, organize my thoughts, and seek guidance from trusted advisors, I was able to turn a pretty gross encounter into a golden opportunity.
Never again will I hide from a chance to respond to haters, particularly in public. How else could I have shown the world who we really are and what we stand for? The valuable public relations lessons learned here will steer my communication decisions for years to come, and for that I’m grateful.