The current issue of Engineering News-Record features the article “When Online Posts Turn Critical,” a look into dealing with negative comments posted online.

A few years ago this wasn’t much of a problem. True, digital bashing is as old as the Internet – and most people have used both positive and negative comments when making a major decision, like purchasing a washing machine or a television. Product reviews are everywhere, and some folks have made a living out of writing fake reviews! But these crowdsourced information sites have been slow to make their way to the service sector. And while there are now sites like Angie’s List that will help you find a plumber, there’s still not a lot out there when it comes to reviews of institutional architects, mechanical engineers, or commercial contractors.

The exception is career-focused sites like Glassdoor. Here you’ll find myriad reviews about working for companies in the A/E/C sector, although most small and mid-sized firms aren’t represented.

With the larger firms, however, you’ll find many often-contradictory reviews. In just spending a few minutes checking out these career sites, I found a lot of very troubling comments.

Regarding a major construction company, employees past and present wrote:

  • “You will be asked and expected to accomplish things far beyond your reach of experience, level in the company and what time allows.”
  • “Senior-level PM’s and VP’s just kind of tottle around the office barking orders and chatting. (I) rarely see my VP, unless he’s yelling at a PM.”
  • “Corporate culture and dishonest dealings sometimes clouded the integrity of the company.”
  • “Frat boy mentality, upper management needed to grow up.”

And even though there are many positive comments about working at this firm, the negative reviews seem to carry more weight – particularly if they are consistent.

Likewise, employees of one of the largest firms in the A/E/C industry have been unhappy since their latest acquisition:

  • “The only way to get ahead is to quit.”
  • “Since the acquisition, morale is very, very low. There is a high rate of turnover.”
  • “Confusing direction.”
  • “Not a healthy environment to work in.”
  • “No synergy or strategy.”

What’s notable in this case is that this particular company, based upon reviews posted on Glassdoor, was singled out by media as one of the 12 worst companies to work for in the United States! Ouch!

A/E/C firms have been slow to the social media game, and those who have been ignoring these platforms are now realizing what a critical tool social media is - not just for proactive marketing, but also for connecting with clients, prospects, employees, and potential employees.

The Importance of Listening

Every company should monitor their mentions in media or on social media. At a minimum, set up Google alerts around your company name or names (including common misspellings). Set up regular searches on the major social media sites, and focus on listening to the comments - good, bad, and ugly. A random negative comment here are there is probably not a big deal - people are mistrustful of both the most positive reviews (did the company pay someone for that review?) as well as the most negative review (someone had an axe to grind).

But trends in comments are important to monitor. Positive feedback about a certain aspect of your company can be leveraged to attract prospects or employees. Negative comments can be countered via web and social media content. If people are complaining about something consistently, and you don't believe it accurately reflects the company, create new content that contradicts the complaints. For instance, if you see a number of comments about the lack of opportunities for advancement for younger employees, create a video of three younger employees who have recently been promoted - let them tell their story in their own words. Post it on your website and push it out via YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and any other site you use.

If negative reviewers post that they felt that a company did not maintain a safe construction site, write a blog about your firm having three consecutive years without a lost-time accident, or about a safety award your firm received.

Don’t Fight Fire with Fire

You should not be aggressive in targeting each and every negative poster - which could reflect poorly on your firm; rather, emphasize the positives on your blog, website, and social media activities.

Also understand that people are skeptical of marketers responding to negative comments. (Case in point: Comcast has a customer-centric social media focus in Comcast Cares, and yet the company continues to experience horrible ratings in customer service.) However, if you have employees focusing on the positive attributes, which contradict the negative comments, then people are more likely to believe that the positive comments are authentic, not manufactured.

But don't be afraid to look in the mirror. If your company is seeing continual negative reviews or comments around a certain theme, then maybe you need to do some soul searching. Maybe things really do need to change internally. If you can't counteract the negative comments with genuine examples or points, you have to determine if there is truth to those comments.

The reality is that the talent war is already here - and getting worse. And beyond that, it's not like every firm has a massive backlog negating the need to proactively market. So whether you have the staff you need right now, or all the workload you can handle right now, understand that situations change. And if there's a whole world of negative social media comments about your firm, you simply can't ignore them. Keep your message positive. Demonstrate how the negative comments are inaccurate by real-world examples (show don't tell), and remember that tomorrow you may need more staff or new clients, so you can't afford to neglect anything online that is damaging to your brand.

Has your firm ever encountered negative online comments? If so, how did you react?