When Criticism Gets You Down

What a biting New York Times restaurant review can teach associations about responding to negative feedback.

I’m sure by now many of you have read—or at least heard about—Pete Wells’ scathing review of celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s recently opened New York City restaurant.  If not, what you missed was a review comprised of more than 30 stinging questions, asking the chef everything from, “When you hung that sign by the entrance that says, WELCOME TO FLAVOR TOWN!, were you just messing with our heads?” to “Any idea why [the watermelon margarita] tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?”

Criticism can happen on all different scales, so it’s good to be prepared, proactive, and thoughtful with your response.

Soon after it was published, Wells’ piece made both the traditional media and social media rounds, and the review had more than 600 comments as of yesterday afternoon. As expected, those who agreed with Well’s assessment of the restaurant and/or Fieri, jumped on the criticism bandwagon, while fans came to Fieri’s defense, some suggesting that Wells’ review was a personal attack.

The Times itself addressed this when the newspaper’s Public Editor Margaret Sullivan defended Wells in Wednesday’s Public Editor’s Journal, writing, “The review is … completely within the purview of the restaurant critic who, like all critics, has all the pleasure and all the pain that comes with the freedom to speak his mind.” She went on to say she spoke with Wells, who told her he visited the restaurant four times since mid-October and did not approach “writing the review with a certain amount of glee.”

Imagine, just for a second, that your association received biting criticism from one of your well-regarded members about one of your meetings. What if this member wrote that it was one of the worst events she ever attended and had a list of reasons why? How would you respond?

In Fieri’s case, this meant appearing on NBC’s Today show two days after the review was published. Fieri started the interview with some strong words for Wells, suggesting that the critic had an “agenda,” as well as saying the review was both “ridiculous” and “overboard.”

It was not until later in the interview that he admitted to Today’s Savannah Guthrie that the review gave him some things to think about, saying, “We’re trying as hard as we can to make it right, to do it right,” he said. “Is it perfect right now? No. Are we striving for it? Yeah.”

Re-watching the interview got me thinking about how important it would be for an association’s first response to be Fieri’s latter one: Acknowledge that you heard the criticism (maybe even thank the member privately and/or publicly for bringing it to your attention), admit that your meeting (or any other product or service) was not as perfect as it could have been, and then discuss what you’ll do in the future to rectify it.

And while criticism for your association is unlikely to appear in a publication that has more than 1.6 million daily subscriptions, Wells’ negative review does serve as a good reminder that criticism can happen on all different scales, so it’s good to be prepared, proactive, and thoughtful with your response. After all, the response can mean as much to your association’s community as the criticism itself.


Samantha Whitehorne

By Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editor-in-chief of Associations Now. MORE

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