3 crisis lessons from TripAdvisor’s deleted review accusations

Several users have claimed the site scrubbed negative comments that detailed accounts of rape and sexual assault, and circulating headlines are fanning the backlash’s flames.

Submitting TripAdvisor reviews might come with a caveat.

On Wednesday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a story in which several people alleged that the travel site deleted their reviews of resorts in Mexico for not following its “family-friendly” guidelines.

The reviews warned travelers to beware of rape and sexual assault.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that in July, a woman asked a question on TripAdvisor about whether a specific resort area in Mexico was safe for her and her husband’s upcoming vacation. “Twenty-four of the comments encouraged the couple not to worry,” the Journal Sentinel reported. However, 27 comments had been removed because they were deemed “inappropriate” or “off-topic.”

International Business Times reported:

The investigative piece mentioned the case of Kristie Love, a woman from Dallas, Texas, who claimed to have been raped by a security guard at a resort in Playa del Carmen in 2010. She wrote about the incident on TripAdvisor but her post was deleted soon after.

According to the Journal Sentinel, since then, two other women have reportedly been sexually assaulted at the same resort.

TripAdvisor republished Love’s review—but the seven-year-old post was now closed to comments and buried behind other posts.

“On 19 October, the site republished Love’s review in its original chronological spot, which means users need to go through over 2,600 pages to find it,” International Business Times reported.

On Wednesday, TripAdvisor released a statement apologizing to Love and pledging to create a system so users could identify potentially unsafe issues:

In order to better inform consumers and provide them with even more information about their travels, TripAdvisor is creating a “badge” notification to apply to businesses to alert consumers of health & safety or discrimination issues at that business reported on within the media or other credible sources of information.

Here are four lessons brand managers can take away from this crisis:

1. Deleting negative reviews or comments can backfire.

It might be tempting to scrub your website or social media feeds of negative comments about your organization or partners.

However, deleting those accounts can erode consumer trust.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported:

Like most sites that allow reader comments, TripAdvisor’s guidelines for posting on its forums and for writing reviews are aimed at keeping out profanity, spam and fake or irrelevant content.

First-hand information shared by travelers is central to the company’s success.

The popularity of what consumers perceive as trustworthy user reviews from fellow travelers propelled the website from its inception as a tiny, online travel guide in 2000 to its prominence today as an indispensable tool used by hundreds of millions of travelers worldwide with sites in 28 languages. The company receives more than 290 new contributions every minute.

TripAdvisor relies on consumers’ opinions to thrive, so deleting reviews was especially risky. However, any organization that turns a deaf ear to complaints might soon find themselves in hot water, whether through an investigative journalism piece, viral hashtag or brand boycott.

2. Respond quickly and sincerely.

How you respond to complaints—and potential crises—can either foster or diminish brand loyalty.

International Business Times reported:

TripAdvisor initially released a statement through a spokeswoman in response to the claims. “It’s important that anyone who suspects foul play or illegal activity contact the local authorities rather than use a review platform as their primary way to share their experience.”

Another statement was later released which apologized to Love for removing her review. “We are horrified that this victim experienced this assault on her vacation in Mexico, and other travelers should be aware of this incident,” the company said, adding that it had changed its policies regarding places that have health and safety issues.

There are ways to say “I’m sorry” and make it stick—and those strategies don’t include denying the situation happened, refusing to take responsibility or projecting insincerity.

Speak openly and earnestly, and fess up to any mistakes you’ve made. Tell people how you’re going to right a wrong, as well. Otherwise, your mea culpa can do more harm than good.

3. Don’t underestimate the value of listening.

You don’t have to be a review site to rely on consumers’ opinions. Online engagement requires brand managers to listen—especially when crowdsourcing information.

It also requires trust and transparency.

USA Today reported:

An untold number of TripAdvisor users have been granted special privileges, including the ability to delete forum posts. But the company won’t disclose how those users are selected.

There’s no way to know how many negative reviews are withheld by TripAdvisor; how many true, terrifying experiences never get told; or for site users to know that much of what they see has been specifically selected and crafted to encourage them to spend.

“This is a major problem with online reviews, they’re heavily skewed,” said Bart De Langhe, an associate professor of marketing at ESADE business school in Barcelona, Spain, who specializes in consumer behavior and user reviews. “We live in this illusion of perfect information … but we don’t ask the hard questions and don’t realize the information is imperfect and biased.”

If you ask your audience a question, show that you care about the answers.

Take questions, concerns and suggestions into account and work to address them in a timely manner. Explain changes to user products and services before they hit—and stick around to hear feedback (the good and the bad).

What lessons would you add to the list, PR Daily readers?

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