Holding Brands Hostage And The Etiquette Of Complaining Via Social Media

There’s a longstanding joke: “Why is it called golf? ….Because f*** was already taken.”

The same line of thinking could be applied to social media in that it’s called “social media” because “passive aggressive” was already taken. Never mind the fact that online communication tears down the real relationships between real friends and replaces them with digital ties, it also takes our non-existent relationships with strangers and adds a digital element.

Before social media if you sat next to an annoying person on the bus, you would simply groan about it and complain to your colleagues, in real life, later at work. Now, Twitter and Facebook are an outlet for everything that affects us throughout the day. From smelly patrons on transit, to loud talkers at Starbucks to poor customer service, everything is instantly shared with everyone in 140 characters or less.

I’m guilty of the passive agressive bitching and complaining, I admit it. It seems that blasting out a complaint to the world on Twitter is a way of getting it off our chest without actual confrontation. That may work for complaining about the people on the bus, or the behaviour of drivers, but if you passive aggressively bitch about a business you are holding that brand hostage and not giving them a chance to effectively respond.


A recent article in Maclean’s opened my eyes to the other side of the equation. Restaurants are being held hostage by everyone with a smartphone. Instant reviews on Yelp, Facebook, Chow Hound, and Twitter matter, and the customer knows this, tossing a following of a few hundred twitter followers in the face of managers.

Amy Lu, a small-time Toronto food blogger with a few hundred twitter followers tossed this at the Windsor Arms Hotel when she arrived early for her tea seating and found that her seat was not yet ready.

She didn’t approach the hostess stand to investigate the matter (as perhaps one would have done 5 years ago before the proliferation of social media), she put her face in her phone and passive aggressively blasted the establishment effectively holding them hostage with the threat of a nasty review.

What is a brand to do in the face of these threats? I have long argued that bloggers give themselves far more credit than they deserve when considering themselves media and demanding access to events, but in a world where the collective wisdom of the crowd is relied upon so heavily, a nasty experience by a savvy (not necessarily influential) user can quickly float to the top of the heap and last forever. Amy may only have 750 followers on Twitter, but Yelp is accessed by millions.

Lu was given a spa gift certificate by the hotel as a gesture in light of her negative experience. And, like food to the ducks at the park, this sort of response will only encourage the passive aggressive behaviour from the peanut gallery. It will inflate the self importance of the social media crowd and, instead of dealing with problems one-on-one, they’ll continue to complain with their megaphone.

I asked a friend of mine who owns a group of high end, popular restaurants how she handles the social media.

In the beginning, I’d actually panic when complaints would come in. If you can imagine, trying to find one body on a Saturday night in a room full of 400 other people, when their avi is Barbie, is nearly impossible and so stressful. Regardless however, I did my best to find as many as I could and make the situation right.

I’d say that 99% of the tweets we deal with in a day are positive, but we can’t be perfect for everyone all the time.

Regardless of who the tweeter is, they are a customer. Bottom line. They deserve the courtesy of a response and an attempt to make the problem right.

Media is a funny thing. I don’t play to media or to bloggers. I don’t RT random blogger reviews whether positive or negative. I can’t say I’ve ever gotten bullied like that article, but people definitely try to push their weight around.


What my friend is doing is the right first step – she’s listening. If you are on Twitter with your business, the message you push out is far less important than the message you are hearing. Twitter is a valuable tool for business to monitor opinion and to manage reputation.

I have tweeted bad experiences with major brands before. I didn’t get passive aggressive, I used Twitter as a way to directly addressed the brand. One responded with a request for a detailed email, the other ignored my tweet altogether. Even after giving details in the email, my issue was left unresolved.

If a brand is on Twitter, they are showing they are willing to be responsive. Not responding to tweets is like putting out a 1-800 number and never answering the phone. Similarly, if a brand is going to engage a customer, they need to see it to the end. Leaving it hanging is just as bad as not responding.


1. What would you have done 5 years ago? You’d call, write a letter, ask to speak to a manager. It would be a one-on-one issue that would be handled privately. Try that approach first.

2. Don’t add a character or word before Tweeting at the brand so your entire stream sees the tweet. @ them directly. If they follow you, ask to take the complaint to DM before addressing it. Give the brand a chance to do properly by the problem before you lash out passive aggressively to your entire audience.

3. Threatening a bad review if you don’t get satisfaction only makes you look like a spoiled brat. Yes, the brand has to take your threat seriously, because Yelp, TripAdvisor, Twitter, and Facebook all matter, but you’re being a terrorist. You’re scaring the brand into helping you, and I wish more brands could afford to not negotiate with terrorists like Amy Lu who hold brands hostage.

It’s a two way street of common sense, really. Think about how you would handle the situation face to face, and take that approach to social media. Be polite, be discreet, listen, engage.

Only after all those avenues fail you should you take your complaints to the masses and make a YouTube video.

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