I had a long conversation the other day with a friend who used to be an auto journalist about negative reviews. He told a story of when a colleague sent his (negative) review of a vehicle to the PR company behind said vehicle. He also told me a story of how someone’s feelings were hurt when he wrote a negative review of another car, and how a particular colleague told him that he should “go easy on them.” It reminded me distinctly of my days in games journalism when I’d sit down, crack my knuckles as if I was doing something important, and write a negative review of a PC game, only to turn it in and get in a little bit of trouble for being a little too nasty.
This wasn’t uncommon.
There was – at least for the years I was doing games journalism – a genuine sense that you couldn’t be too mean or too critical of a particular big publisher, though this was generally brushed aside when it came to smaller publishers, which wasn’t unique to games but definitely was extremely annoying. The change that happened was that it became necessary to critique big releases, and publishers responded by delaying embargoes on reviews (IE: the agreed-upon time that you can post your review of a game, essentially an outlet’s trade to get a game early enough to have a review up for release date) to the literal day of the game’s release. Outlets responded by not posting reviews on release day, letting games “sit” a bit and having more robust reviews. A big mess, all essentially to trick gamers into buying a game before reading an honest review, or at least to stop the inevitable – that gamers might find out a game, well, sucks.
The same thing happens in tech, in the sense that there are agreed-upon embargo dates to post reviews on, in the event a reporter receives something in advance, and if the thing is already released and they’re simply reviewing it, the rules of engagement are oftentimes as simple as “please send it back to us when you’re done.” What some PR people interpret reviews as – and no, I’m not going to be kind and say “oh they’re just doing what the CEO says,” because PR people apparently have working brains – is a lubed tube of positive press, a chance for a person to write something nice and get free shit because they were nice.
Nuh-uh. A review is something that exists to give a critical third party statement on your product. It may be positive. It may be negative. If it’s negative, they’re most likely finding stuff in the thing you sent them. It’s meant to be their own subjective evaluation, because a review is an abstraction of word-of-mouth, which is inarguably the most powerful force a PR person can hope to harness.
Now, if you’re a PR person, you may think negative reviews are bad. The truth is that they are only bad if your product is bad, which if it is…well, your product is bad, fix your product, don’t release bad products. I’ll get to that in a little bit.
What happens far more often than I’d like is that PR people take negative reviews as people “being haters.” This is not true, you are a huge baby if you consider someone a “hater” because of a bad review, and I wish you’d stop saying it because it’s unproductive to the world at large. In your general life, if you bought something and it was bad, you’d say you hated it and why you hated it. If someone does that in a review, they are doing so because they feel that the thing was bad at the thing the thing was meant to do. They are also doing so so that their readers know whether something is bad, so that they spend their money or don’t spend their money on it, or something else.
How To Deal With Bad Reviews (And How They’re Actually Good For You)
One particular stinker of a PR firm working for MSI recently attempted to bribe, then threaten a reporter for giving their laptop a bad review.
Now, the smart money here would be to say to the reviewer “yeah, your findings are correct, the trackpad is off,” or put him on the phone with an engineer, or, if you know your laptop sucks, just kind of say that the things he’s found are consistent with the final product. Brace yourself for impact. The review’s gonna be bad. Threatening someone with no more review samples or sponsorships because they said your bad thing is bad is childish and moronic – the act of a coward and a charlatan.
I can guarantee the internal conversation here branded this reporter some kind of hater, an outlier in an otherwise perfect crop. Whenever you do this, you are hurting yourself. This is stupid. You are stupid. If they have found a legitimate problem with your device, fix that, then go back to the reviewer.
Why? Because if you go back to a “hater” and say “hey, we heard you, we fixed it, what do you think?” you may turn them into a convert, who will absolutely lose their shit at a company that legitimized their feelings and respected their opinion. You know who also loves this the fucking consumer. Consumers are used to being told their opinions and dislikes are stupid, and that they don’t know what they want.
Sidenote: yes, there are occasionally haters. They are very rare. If you are a PR person reading this and using this as an excuse to call someone a hater, I'm going to come to your house and break every toilet, I am going to leave you with no way to go to the bathroom. Next time you need to go to the toilet, you are going to have to do so in the trash.
Negative reviews are good for you because they show consumers that everything positive about you isn’t paid advertising. Negative reviews show that you are fallible, like regular human beings, and your ability to take criticism like an adult and use it to be better will allow you to be a stronger, better company. A good company will have bad reviews. A good product will have them too. Nothing is perfect, just like the human experience, and you should be realistic about that.
To conclude, I know reading negative stuff sucks. It hurts. I’m not emotionless, and I recognize criticism is painful, especially when there’s nothing you can immediately do about it. Maybe if you know something is a little flawed you’ll take it only to certain reporters who won’t, well, be so harsh on it. Maybe you don’t do a big press campaign around it. Maybe you put it back in development. Depending on the product it may not be possible. But if you’re working on something categorically bad, perhaps it’s worth not putting it out there at all.