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Leveraging Media Criticism to Get Your Business Ahead of the Crowd

November 16, 2020 8 min read

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One trait that applies to most new entrepreneurs is hopeless optimism. While many entrepreneurs and startup owners keep their feet on the ground when it comes to budgeting and business management, they may not be so level-headed about media criticism. In fact, most startup owners expect to receive nothing but praise and cheers when their products or services hit the market. Unfortunately, this is almost never the case.

However, every dark cloud has a silver lining. Rather than throwing in the towel when you get negative feedback, you should leverage media criticism to your advantage. When it comes to leveraging media critiques, there are essentially two schools of thought. One approach is the “PT Barnum Pro-Criticism” technique; the other is Eric Reis’ “Adaptive Learning” strategy. Though both methods are very different, they offer you two ways to turn negative media criticism into a useful tool to grow your business and ultimately stand out from the competition.

What is media criticism?

It may sound like a no-brainer, but many first-time entrepreneurs assume that any kind of negative feedback qualifies as media criticism. In fact, there’s a huge difference between consumers leaving your business bad reviews on Yelp and a journalist criticizing your startup in a respected publication. So, let’s evaluate the differences between consumer criticism and media criticism.

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Consumer criticism

Consumer criticism refers to any kind of negative criticism of you, your product, your service, or your business by a patron or customer. For example, let’s say you run a business that provides digital marketing services. A client uses your services, feels unhappy about their experience, and decides to write a negative review of your business.

This is a prime example of consumer criticism. It is simply a form of negative feedback from a customer or client. More importantly, the customer or client is not a public figure, nor do they hold any sway over a larger audience. However, their feedback will likely be in the public view, so it does have the power to negatively affect your business and possibly deter future clients.

Media criticism

Alternatively, media criticism refers to negative feedback from a public and / or authoritative source. Sometimes, consumer criticism can also be media criticism. For example, if a prominent Youtube star makes a purchase from your startup and creates a negative review video for their Youtube channel, this would be a form of both consumer and media criticism.

In any case, media criticism generally comes from individuals or organizations that have a large audience or have the ability to sway public opinion in a substantial way. Here are a few common examples:

Journalists

Prominent social media influencers or bloggers

Celebrities

Newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets

TV programs, radio shows, and podcasts

Needless to say, there can be many different sources of media criticism. When many new startup owners are faced with media criticism, they may feel the urge to crumble under the pressure. After all, being the target of public criticism from a popular or authoritative source can be painful. So, how can you get over the initial hurdles and leverage media criticism to your own advantage?

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Different approaches to managing and leveraging media criticism

As previously mentioned, there are two unique approaches to leveraging media criticism. The first approach is the “PT Barnum Pro-Criticism” method. This is a rather famous – and perhaps infamous – strategy implemented by world-renowned New York Showman and founder of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, PT Barnum. So, let’s take a closer look at the notorious showman’s strategy for using media criticism to grow his entertainment empire.

PT Barnum’s pro-criticism method

Though PT Barnum dabbled in a wide variety of ventures – from politics to journalism – he is most remembered for his traveling circus and widely publicized hoaxes. He became highly successful due to his keen observation that media criticism can be a good thing. In fact, many historians attribute the famous quote, “there’s no such thing as bad press,” (sometimes quoted as “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”) to Barnum.

One of Barnum’s most famous hoaxes was the “Feejee Mermaid,” which was the corpse of a monkey sewn to the tail of a fish, with paper-mâché to craft certain parts of the head and body. Despite its highly questionable authenticity, thousands of people flocked to Barnum’s New York-based museum to see the exhibit. In this instance, Barnum used controversy and negative media attention to grow his empire. This was further exemplified with his second most popular hoax, “General Tom Thumb.”

As part of his touring circus, Barnum employed several dwarfs and little people, one of whom he dubbed “General Tom Thumb.” The young boy began performing at the age of 4, with Barnum claiming that he was “The Smallest Person That Ever Walked Alone.” The act was so popular that Barnum took it to Europe, where Queen Victoria was both entertained and saddened by the young entertainer. His appearance before royalty – and the subsequent media frenzy – led to a hugely successful European tour.

So, how can these stories help you as an entrepreneur? The fact is that there is some truth to Barnum’s media criticism theory. Press – whether good or bad – provides exposure for you and your business. In short, it makes more people aware of your brand. For example, my business, The Doe, is a digital publication for anonymous contributors. Since we strive to encourage conversation and differing viewpoints, we have faced media criticism in the past.
Most recently, we experienced backlash related to an article that argued against voting in the 2020 election due to the lack of quality candidates. Some of our most prominent followers took to social media to deride the article’s viewpoint, but as the founder and CEO of The Doe, I decided to lean into the criticism. Rather than ignoring, however, I always choose to respond to our critics, as often those conversations can be the most enlightening as a founder.

Eric Reis’ adaptive learning

In his much-lauded book, The Lean Startup, American entrepreneur Eric Reis puts forward a method for handling media critiques as a startup owner. Part of this process is a practice that Reis calls “Adaptive Learning.” As the name implies, entrepreneurs must analyze feedback so that they can adapt and learn from past mistakes. In short, it takes the same process that startups can use with consumer criticism and implements it with media criticism.

However, the ideas behind Adaptive Learning are far more complex than simply learning from one’s mistakes. In fact, Reis promotes a three-step process that every startup owner can use to their advantage. The illustration below provides a broad overview of Reis’ process:

As you can see, every startup must begin with a vision. This step defines the goals of your startup. To get to the next step, you must identify actionable steps that can get your startup up and running. Once you’ve identified these elements, you can start seeing how your business operates and how it is received. Are you able to profit right from the start? Is consumer feedback positive or negative? How about media critiques?

If you’re getting any negative feedback or taking note of metrics that could be improved, this is the moment to adapt and learn. This process of building, measuring, and learning is the foundation of Adaptive Learning. As you can see from the illustration above, you can continue through this process multiple times to improve your business and leverage media criticism to your advantage.

It’s inevitable

At one point or another, media criticism is an inevitability for every startup owner. Whether it’s a blogger who doesn’t like your product or a journalist who thinks your practices are questionable, there will always be media critiques of your business. Remember, you shouldn’t see media criticism as a reason to give up; you should see it as a reason to improve and build your business. Whether you use the PT Barnum Pro-Criticism approach or Eric Reis’ Adaptive Learning method (or even a combination of the two), you have an actionable path to success. You simply have to use your ability to leverage media criticism so that your business can grow and get ahead of the crowd!

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