It’s a Community

When I talk about why government agencies need to be on social media, there’s always a discussion of what to do when mean people invade. You know the ones: the YouTube commenters, the Redditors, the newspaper article commenters. Titans of government service, folks who’ve had books written about them, quivering in the face of “pajama-clad basement dwellers.” “What do we do when people say something bad about us?” There are two ways I can respond. The first is the easiest, and what I usually say: it’s an opportunity to correct wrong information and potentially convert a disbeliever. The second is not so nice, but no less true: it’s probably your fault.

Let’s start with the easy one first. Every time someone interacts with you, positive, negative or otherwise, it’s an opportunity. One of your citizens, residents or visitors thinks that you are worth their time. Make no mistake, this is a big win. Especially given the level of relevancy government has in most people’s lives. If they’re in agreement, shout it from the mountaintops; that right there is a community-generated positive review of your services. (Do you know how much some businesses will pay for that? Tons.) If they disagree or are otherwise disputing you, this is your big chance to start to set the record straight. Our friends in Canada give this advice:

Keep these few bullets handy when writing a response to negative commentary:

  • Give facts, be transparent – don’t twist the response, most will catch on. If they don’t, someone else online will.
  • Polite – thank the user for their comment/feedback.
  • Positive – don’t use a negative tone. THAT, will definitely fuel the fire.
  • Solution – where you can, provide a solution to a problem or credible information.
  • Public – respond publicly, if you must take things to a private message to resolve, then do so as you seem fit.
  • Never, ever delete – don’t delete a comment. It makes it seem like you have something to hide.
  • Avoid arguments – makes you seem like you don’t know how to listen.
  • Have someone else take a look – it’s always good to get a second opinion on the structure of tone of your response where you can.

In fact, the US Air Force has this amazing diagram with how to deal with the online commentariot:

(And I point people there ALL THE TIME. Great resource.)

The second way of attacking this particular problem is not so nice and not something that I’ve said to many executives (okay, none of them, really). The reason that you’ve got problems in your comments is because of you. Because you’ve neglected your audience, taken them for granted, ignored their requests and concerns and generally been a government bureaucrat. When people are treated that way, they tend to react negatively. Want another example? Look at every government toppled by unhappy citizens. But that might be taking this a bit too far. Instead, let’s look to Anil Dash, one of the absolute web 2.0 heroes of the world, for his, ahem, rather salty exhortation:

How many times have you seen a website say “We’re not responsible for the content of our comments.”? I know that when you webmasters put that up on your sites, you’re trying to address your legal obligation. Well, let me tell you about your moral obligation: Hell yes, you are responsible. You absolutely are. When people are saying ruinously cruel things about each other, and you’re the person who made it possible, it’s 100% your fault. If you aren’t willing to be a grown-up about that, then that’s okay, but you’re not ready to have a web business. Businesses that run cruise ships have to buy life preservers. Companies that sell alcohol have to keep it away from kids. And people who make communities on the web have to moderate them.

The people we direct to our website and our social media platforms aren’t just anyone. They’re a community. A community that we built. Our community. As the community managers, it’s up to us to make sure that all are welcome to a free, useful, informative, positive experience. To do any less is to ensure that they continue to be ignored, taken for granted and otherwise neglected. Just like every other government experience they’ve had.

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Profile Photo Kevin Lanahan

The only bullet point I’d take issue with is to never delete a comment.

If you have a clear comment policy and the commenter violates it, the comment should be recorded and deleted. Profanity, spam, or personal attacks would get the comment removed.

You can say all the bad things you want about our department, even spread lies about us (we’ll counter those with another comment), but stay polite, stay on topic and there’s no problem.

Profile Photo Jim Garrow


I agree, I’m not in love with that recommendation either. In my Department, we never have had the need to delete a comment (yet!). But I work very closely with our local police department and they delete stuff every day (the comments they get are a lot worse than the ones we get).

I will say, though, that the policy that you have is a great way to ensure that the conversations that take place in your community will be thoughtful and productive. Keep up the great work!

Profile Photo Bill Schrier

Kevin: I disagree in one respect. I believe every government blog or social media site should have clear terms of service which, for example, expressly prohibit comments using foul language or personal attacks. And those comments should be immediately deleted. For example, “the Governor is an f***ing a***ole”. Immediate deletion. If commenters can’t be civil they should know they may be barred from posting.