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Frequently Asked Questions for Gov 2.0: How do we handle negative comments from citizens?

One of the biggest concerns agencies have when considering social media engagement is how they handle negative comments from participants – ranging from abuse and bullying through to criticism of agencies and party politicking.

Of course these kinds of conversations may already be going on about an organisation online – through forums, blogs, social networks and custom sites. Agencies can do little, if anything, about these except in the worst cases where defamation, impersonation, copyright breaches or other illegal activities have taken place.

Most government organisations I know are either aware and monitor these sites (as a useful source of intelligence on potential emerging media issues) or are either unaware or simply don’t care much about them.

However once a site or social tools are potentially owned, associated with or identified as representing an agency, the fear of negativity grows enormously. This takes a wide range of forms… fears that providing or ‘endorsing’ a medium that might see negative feedback could lead to political repercussions for a Minister or for the agency (if the Minister’s office reacts to a comment), that the negativity might lead to extra unbudgeted work for an agency (ministerials, moderation and police reports), that negativity could overwhelm any productive discussion, or simply that negative commenters are clearly not representative of an agency’s stakeholders and audience (everyone likes to think of themselves and their employer in a positive way).

What I tell agencies is that you will probably experience negative comments at some point – whether or not you own or manage your own social media channels.

However your capability to manage, mitigate and control negativity is much less if you do not have a social media presence and cannot effectively set context or interact in the discussion.

In effect, when people talk behind your back (on social media when you have no social media presence) you have limited avenues to mitigate any risks from this negativity.

However when you are openly in the discussion it is much easier to have a sensible discussion and, even when you disagree with someone, the surrounding audience will be able to judge how sensible you have been and will walk away with a more balanced view.

Sometimes, through active engagement, it is possible to turn around the views of a negative person – often they simply want to be listened to, have been given misinformation, were unaware of their rights or the full situation, or can be helped.

Of course there are people who simply want to be negative – who are so hurt or strong in their views you cannot solve their issues – however you demonstrate your good will by how you interact, giving them the options rather than the silent treatment.

When an agency manages the engagement channel it has some control over the context and ‘rules of engagement’ through that channel – capabilities an agency sacrifices by allowing commenters to go into uncontrolled Internet spaces.

Setting context is an extremely powerful way to manage any online or offline interaction, through defining the topic, how you will engage and how you expect others to engage. This includes your moderation policy, community guidance and the tone and approach taken by your representatives in the discussion.

If you fail to set the context well you will experience issues as the community ‘finds its own level’. However when it is set well and adhered to and managed by your agency you have a level of control and your community will back you, often stepping in to chastise a random negative person and either integrate them into the community or isolate them from the discussion.

Remember, when an agency is having a discussion, via social media or any channels, the agency representatives are not the only participants with something to gain from the exchange. Many people in the community see this engagement as an opportunity for them to have a productive discussion resulting in better outcomes for their community, family or themselves. Respect these people who have the same goal as the agency and Minister, the best possible outcome – even when you must negotiate over what ‘best outcome’ means, based on funds, competing interests and practicalities.

If you are attracting negative comments to your social media channels on an ongoing basis, there are some tactics you can use to manage their impact. Firstly consider diverting them into a specific area for complaints, or to a different channel. This can be a particularly useful approach for dealing with ‘elephants’ in the room, diverting the comments and allowing other discussions to proceed without interruption.

Another approach is channel switching – contact persistently negative participants and offer to engage with them about their issues through another channel, particularly your standard complaints or customer service channels.

Keep in mind that negativity is a reflection, or a symptom, of someone that is wrong. You should also consider whether your agency does need to modify activities (within practical limits) to address the root cause of some complaints.

Finally, I always warn agencies that when opening up a social media channel – or any new way for citizens or stakeholders to provide comment to an agency – that they are likely to experience an initial wave of negativity as people get out any issues or frustrations they have stored up over years of engaging with your agency or coping with a policy situation.

My recommendation is to prepare for and ride this wave – it will subside with time. Knowing that it may occur, your agency should do some pre planning, identifying potential issues (based on your other channels and online comments) and having appropriate responses prepared, as well as an approach to rapidly respond to unexpected negativity.

This should become part of your longer-term social media plan and overall risk management strategy.

The worst thing you can do when experiencing negative feedback is to ignore it. This can lead to ‘volume’ increases in comments, which can easily escalate into a bigger issue. Acknowledge and recognise the views, then move on to resolve it, redirect it or otherwise respond to it – either individually or via a standard response to a group of similar concerns (acknowledging who you are responding to as a group if possible).

So in brief, expect some negativity and have plans in place to handle it rapidly, set your context well and support and empower your moderators to moderate and engage.

Avoid delaying/stalling tactics and treat online discourse as more like a telephone than a letter. You will find this will lead to better discussions and outcomes, with less pain and resourcing.

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Corey McCarren

It’s interesting looking at the GSA page, lots of people expressing frustration there, like:

“Just like the Ravens, a bunch of criminals”

What would you recommend that the social media managers there do? They seem to be mostly ignoring the criticism.

Andrew Krzmarzick

You offer some great suggestions, Craig.

I always tell agencies to say “thank you.” Negative comments often reveal blind spots. If consistent and voluminous, it’s even more important that an agency pay attention.

If possible, I think it’s also important for an agency to ask the person with the problem: “How would you solve this issue? What would be an ideal response from us?”