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  • July 18, 2013

The Dumbest Man in Congress

Years ago, when men wore hats and the world was black and white, a small-town newspaper roused the ire of its hometown legislator, one Phineas P. Farnsworth, by labeling him “the dumbest man in Congress.” Decorative Illustration

Not one to consider the merits of a criticism or take it lying down, the offended congressman immediately convened a press conference in Washington, DC. Journalists representing all the big American newspapers duly gathered to learn what was on the heretofore-unnoticed representative’s mind.

“My friends, take a look at this so-called newspaper,” the legislator boomed, waving the offending journal. “DUMBEST MAN IN CONGRESS,” declared its 32pt headline. Flashbulbs ignited as the assembled press photographers recorded the headline and the red-faced congressman holding it aloft.

“Friends,” the congressman continued, “the editor of the Spring Creek Times-Herald-Picayune has had the unmitigated temerity to call me, Phineas P. Farnsworth, the dumbest man in Congress. Well, gentlemen and ladies, let me assure you that I am most certainly not the dumbest man in Congress.”

“Who is?” a young reporter shot back.

Rep. Farnsworth was nonplussed. “Pardon me, son?”

“Who’s the dumbest man in Congress?” the reporter elaborated. “You say you’re not the guy, so who is?”

Farnsworth coughed, turned strawberry-red, dabbed his brow with the sleeve of his jacket, and gazed helplessly at the sea of journalistic faces. Not one friend could he find in that assemblage. He turned his eyes to the ceiling of the majestic rotunda in which he and the journalists had gathered, but no answer could he find in the mural overhead. He stood. He sputtered. He said nothing.

An orgy of flash bulbs instantly illuminated the hapless congressman. The next day, every paper in the country showed his blinking, sweating, sad-hound-dog-jowled face beneath the 72pt headline, “The Dumbest Man in Congress.” For he had proved himself to be just that; and proved it, mind you, to the entire nation, which previously had not harbored a single thought about Farnsworth.

Some say that when his term ended, he returned to his home state and took up chicken farming. Others insist that he died of shame, days after the self-authored debacle.

Where your web content and identity are concerned, it pays to remember Farnsworth’s fate. Negative comments on your organization’s blog, or directed at your product or service from someone’s Twitter or Facebook stream, should never be a cause for alarmed overreaction. Clueless corporate pushback will not get you ahead of a negative story; it will only amplify it.

Yet, companies are always doing this. They spend millions on product development, advertising, and marketing; agonize over design; and worry their web team to death—all in the service of building a brand people trust and maybe even love. And then they blow it by siccing their non-web-savvy legal team on the first obscure blogger who mentions a flaw in their product.

One person with 50 followers criticizes some aspect of your product or service on Twitter. The criticism may have value. It may be an opportunity to improve your product. It certainly merits quietly and unashamedly reaching out to the dissatisfied customer. What it does not merit is a corporate defensive crouch.

The last thing you want to do is highlight the criticism by rebutting it in a long-winded legalistic email sent to all 50,000 of your newsletter subscribers. Yet, companies do just this all the time. What is the result? 50,000 customers who were previously interested enough in your product to have trusted you with their email address will hear the criticism for the first time. All will consider it. Some will agree with it. Whether they agree or disagree with the initial criticism, the smart recipients will also consider you humorless, clueless, and needlessly invasive of their privacy. Unsubscribe notices will follow. The good feelings your people work hard to foster will subside in measurable and unmeasurable ways. The luster you have patiently built up over the years through good products, good customer service, and good web experience (which is a combination of good products and good customer service) will dim.

I feel silly telling you this because it is self-evident. I might as well write an article predicting that the sun will rise in the morning. And yet.

And yet some of the otherwise smartest companies and organizations I know have damaged themselves and offended their best customers by handling negative feedback in exactly the wrong way.

Treat all feedback as a priceless opportunity to interact with your customers. Don’t be the dumbest man in Congress.

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