Regardless of their industry or the specifics of their particular crisis, there is one consistent question we get from clients when faced with criticism. We got a bad review. Somebody posted a nasty comment. There’s an online petition accusing us of being horrible people. Should we respond?

We generally counsel clients to listen but not not feel obligated to respond to every comment. Instead, monitor social media chatter. Are the comments gaining traction? Jumping into a back and forth with someone who has already decided that you are guilty escalates, rather than diffuses, a crisis. Instead, if the situation merits comment, explain your position through a statement posted on your website and social channels or as an op-ed in the local paper. These channels allow you to present the facts and get your perspective on record while avoiding a public confrontation with an adversary who has already expressed that they will not believe a word you say.

To be clear, it’s never a good idea to let your opposition tell a one-sided story. However, there are ways to communicate your side without engaging in a shouting match that accomplishes nothing and may in fact further damage your brand’s reputation.

Go on Record—For Now and for Later

Cheyenne Frontier Days (CFD) is the world’s largest outdoor rodeo and Western celebration, so it is frequently the target of social media campaigns from anti-rodeo groups that accuse the event of animal abuse. Groups will contact local media demanding that CFD respond to their claims. Like many rodeos, CFD’s first instinct has been to refuse to respond. Why bother to argue with people who already mistrust you?

My firm, Pushkin PR, uses media intelligence dashboards to monitor social channels and alert our clients when a response is warranted. Having an awareness of the negative chatter allowed us to help CFD draft responses to media questions and develop content illuminating all the animal care steps they take to prevent and treat injuries. Now, instead of getting a one-sided story, anyone interested in the issue heard CFD’s point of view.

Know When to Step In

Cheyenne Animal Shelter faced an onslaught of online criticism from local residents after an unfortunate situation that started when a stray dog was dropped off. As with most municipal animal shelters, unclaimed animals are put up for adoption if no one claims them after a certain period of time. A few days after this dog was adopted, it attacked and killed some livestock, and state law requires animals that attack people or livestock be euthanized. Friends of the original owner began an online petition and a flurry of social media posts claiming that there was no proof the dog had killed livestock and accused the shelter of preventing the original owner from reclaiming the dog.

The Shelter posted a statement on its Facebook page detailing exactly what happened, and we continued to monitor for negative posts using Meltwater. Choosing to not respond but keeping a close eye on chatter was an effective strategy until a local radio station posted a news story on its website that included misleading statements it had gathered from social media:

Now we were faced with a situation where a media outlet posted a news story, including unverified claims they obtained from random social media posts. At this point, we determined that a response was necessary to protect the organization’s reputation and ensure accurate information was available, so we sent a statement to the station’s news director responding to the false claims.

So, How Do You Know When to Respond and When to Not To?

So how do you know if and when you should respond? Answering these questions is a good start.

1. Has there been damage to your organization’s reputation? As Warren Buffet famously pointed out, it takes 20 years to build a reputation but five minutes to ruin it. It can also take years to repair a damaged reputation once it’s been tarnished. So if there’s been damage to your reputation, most crisis communications pros would counsel you to respond quickly, decisively, and transparently.

2. Would a reasonable person expect a responsible organization to respond? In most crisis communications situations, the answer to that question is obviously, yes. So the question then becomes not should we respond, but how should we respond?

3. Is public opinion about you being shaped by inaccurate statements or slanderous claims? If the answer is yes, it could be time to address that negative sentiment by clearly stating the facts.

Ultimately, the only way to know if you should respond or not is to listen. There are plenty of social media monitoring tools available to help you do this. Pushkin PR uses Meltwater to continually monitor social media chatter for our crisis communications clients. We are able to get daily reports and real time alerts when we need them, which allows us to instantly notify a client about anything that may require a response.

While we don’t recommend getting into online shouting matches, we do believe that it is always important for any organization to protect its brand reputation. Don’t let five minutes ruin what it took 20 years to build, and don’t let it take years to repair the damage to your brand once it happens. Knowing whether to respond or not is not always simple. But the answer will become much clearer if your first step is to listen.

Jon Pushkin is the President of Pushkin PR, a Denver-based, full-service public relations firm specializing in crisis communications and healthcare, nonprofit and government public relations strategy.