Back-Scratching Backlash


“You do something nice for me and I’ll do something nice for you.”

If as business owners, authors and entrepreneurs we embrace the spirit of all being in this world together, it should come as second nature to want to be helpful – to provide an enthusiastic referral, to pen a helpful review on Yelp, to facilitate networking by introducing kindred spirits who might not have met one another on their own. Sooner or later, however, you’re likely to encounter individuals who aggressively play the guilt card and expect – nay, demand – a favor of equal (or even superior) value. How many times, for instance, have you received an endorsement for skill sets from LinkedIn members that you have not only never worked with but have also never met? Oddly enough, some of that virtual applause is for talents you might not even have. (Just last week I was endorsed for my expertise in metallurgy, dog grooming, and holistic healing. Hmmm.)

Not surprisingly, the psychology behind a total stranger dispensing compliments is often to start a relationship that will lead to reciprocal praise and/or seal a deal. Salespeople, for example, typically open a conversation with a flattering remark about your hair or an item of apparel you’re wearing. By making you feel good about yourself, you’re agreeable to making them feel even better by purchasing something for which they’ll get a commission. Likewise in an exchange this brief, there’s no reason for either side to take it personally if the sale doesn’t happen.

Consider the shift in dynamic, however, if an opinion – either requested or unsolicited – isn’t what the recipient was hoping to hear. The slope gets even more slippery when there’s an implicit expectation of mutual fawning and glee.  Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the practice of reciprocal product reviews.

First and foremost, the goal of any feedback is to identify what’s being done well and what elements warrant improvement. The more constructive the comments – “the third act could be tightened,” “the lounge thermostat is set too high,” “the on-hold music is a little loud” – the more chance there is to verify a problem exists, explore options and incorporate remedies. Criticism, of course, is subjective. If 10 people independently kvetch about 10 different things, it’s different from 10 people that unanimously agree your employees are all surly and could benefit from some anger management classes. It also goes without saying that the credentials of those who volunteer their opinions should be taken into consideration. On many occasions, for instance, aspiring screenwriters send me their scripts along with a smiley-face note that says, “My mom thinks this is the best thing I’ve ever written!” Yes, well, isn’t it nice your mom is supportive but I’m guessing she has no film industry experience for that claim to hold any water.

Lastly, what if someone writes a 5-star book review for you on Amazon and then asks if you’d review theirs? Is there an obligation on your part to be equally effusive?  If your honest opinion is that it’s mind-numbingly awful – and you’re judicious about guarding the value of your word and professional reputation – the answer is “no.” In a competitive context, it’s like giving every participant an “A” or a blue ribbon just so no one’s feelings will be hurt. Ultimately, a false award has as little meaning to the person who excelled as it does to the person who simply showed up and did nothing.

A few months ago I found myself the recipient of a string of vitriolic emails stemming from my assignment of 3 stars to a series novel that had wobbly structure, repetitive dialogue, unlikable characters and multiple typos.  Although I clearly wasn’t the author’s target audience (and stated that upfront in my review), I nonetheless respected what she was trying to do as a storyteller and imparted suggestions on how she could hone her craft to one day reach a broader demographic. While I rarely allow authors to preview my critiques, I had made an exception in this case based on amiable correspondence in our introductory phase and gave her the option to decline the post if she wanted to use it for instructional purposes only.

Her first response was shock that I’d jeopardize her book sales by giving her less than a 5. My respectful agreement not to publish my opinion should have been the end of the conversation. Instead, it escalated to a succession of accusations that (1) I clearly didn’t “get” her message, (2) I obviously hadn’t even read the whole thing, and (3) I was totally jealous of her enormous talent and was purposely trying to suppress her voice. And though I had long since withdrawn from any further communications, it didn’t stop her from her final conclusion that (as a Caucasian) denying her a 5 meant that I was obviously a racist. “Oh and by the way,” she added, “I only gave you a 5 because I thought we were going to become BFFs.”

As the saying goes, with friends like that, who needs enemies?

Here’s this month’s exciting line-up of guest blogs:

No Email, No Phone: Plenty of Room for Inspiration to Grow Your Business – by Blair Thomas

The Power of Color in Marketing Campaigns – by Manilyn Moreno

Why Customer Service Should be Integrated into Your Marketing – by Eric Thomas

Branding Risks and Rewards of Social Media – by Derek Whitney


Whether your end-of-year plans involve staying at home or traveling afar to be with your family and friends, my Media Magnetism colleagues and I wish you a safe, warm and joyous holiday.

See you in 2014!

Thanksgiving megan chromik flickr