It is very common practice for people launching a new social media channel for their agency to tell their friends and relatives about it, both to share something they are enthusiastic and proud of doing and to help get an early boost in numbers - which may significantly amplify growth of the channel over time.
In fact the risk might even be greater with some of these relationships. Some of them may have limited experience using social media and be less familiar with the ground rules of online conversation. Others may feel that your relationship with them allows them to speak more frankly or reveal personal information - an equivalent situation to when your parents tell a new boy or girlfriend embarrassing stories from your childhood.
Clearly it's inappropriate to favour friends and family, giving them special treatment when they break any of the rules of an official agency (or, for that matter, company) page. However it is often more difficult to moderate your mother or best friend than a total stranger due to your personal relationship and the potential personal fall out of a moderation decision or ban.
At the same time it can be impractical or impossible to simply exclude them from a social networking page. Your friends and family members might be in the target audience you're seeking to reach, if not they can be curious or proud of your achievements and may follow or friend the official pages you manage as a show of support.
So how should you handle situations where a family member or friend bends or breaks the rules of an official community you manage?
Below I've identified four different tactics, which should be considered based on the nature of the community, the closeness of your relationship and the type and extent of the breach.
Often the best approach is to delegate moderation to an uninvolved party at your work, someone who doesn't know your friend or relative and is able to review the situation with an objective eye. This gives you an appropriate separation from the situation, both for official and personal purposes.
This approach works well when a page is run collectively by several people, or where the breach is borderline and your judgement might be suspect due to a personal connection.
However it does run the risk of both official and personal fallout. Some people may not appreciate that you were arms-length from the decision, leading to personal relationship issues, a few may even see the moderation call as a personal affront and contact your agency, Minister, the media or broadcast their concerns via other social media channels and groups.
This is where personal judgement comes in. If Uncle Jack is known for his strong responses to perceived snubs, or your friend happens to be a journalist or a blogger and has been known to write about their experiences, you might wish to consider a different tactic before delegating responsibility for a decision.
Another way of dealing with inappropriate conduct by family or friends is to make a personal approach to them, by phone, in person or (at worst) by email.
Some people respond well to this approach, appreciating that it is your job, career and reputation that they might be damaging through their actions. They may be willing to either step down their engagement or step away from the community altogether in order to not hurt you publicly and professionally.
This 'softly softly' approach works well with close relatives and friends who care more about you than about the topic of discussion, and can head off potential issues quickly, though may need to be repeated with some people who have difficulty curbing their enthusiasm or are unaware when their behaviour is offensive or inappropriate towards others.
It doesn't work as well with people more distant or who have strong ideological views on a topic. Equally it might not be effective with friends or relatives who are very unfamiliar with or poor at social media or other social conventions, essentially those known for putting their foots in their mouths at every opportunity (though you love them dearly).
It is important to use your critical judgement as to your relative or friend's character before approaching them personally as some people may react indignantly or angrily to what they see as accusations that they did something wrong. Equally the channel by which you approach them is important - some people prefer face-to-face, others phone. Rarely does email (with its lack of personal touch) work in this situation.
Bite the bullet
On some occasions, such as when you are the sole manager of an official community, where a person is only distantly a friend or relative, where you know they can handle 'rejection' or where potential personal relationship damage isn't a concern, you might choose to simply bite the bullet and moderate their comments or ban them, just like any other participant.
This, while challenging, is often the best approach professionally as it demonstrates your commitment to being fair in all circumstances, even when there is potential personal cost. It can also help build trust in the channel and within your organisation, in you.
There is the potential for this approach to cause tension in family and friendship circles, or even end relationships. However where you either have a limited relationship already with the person, or the situation warrants that you place your professional life ahead of your personal, this approach might be the right one to take.
Again this is a judgement call - and a hard one - you need to make based on the breach and the person. However when this approach is used well you can be surprised at the level of support you do receive from other family members or friends. Their respect and pride in your professionalism can outweigh the natural feelings of betrayal when you appear to be 'them' rather than 'us'.
The most drastic approach, and the least used, is to close down the official channel in order to avoid professional or personal compromise. This is rarely a viable option, however there may be a few situations where it is better to close down the entire community rather than deal with the fallout of a particular decision.
I can't think of many examples when this would be the appropriate response, except if a community is already near its end and there's significant examples of high levels of inappropriate behaviour by a large number of participants. However the approach is worth keeping in mind as an option just in case such an opportunity presents itself.
While a shutdown can annoy a community, when done right it can be seen as the natural end of a process, leaving good memories without hard feelings. Generally my view is that government agencies have been poor at shutting down social media channels, due to lack of consideration of community lifespans or planning around shutdown procedures. I recommend that agencies develop their shutdown plan when they first establish social media channels, in order to manage the risks ahead of time.
So there's four approaches I recommend considering w dealing with those awkward situations when official duties and personal relationships collide through inappropriate behaviour by family or friends in an official agency social media community.
Can anyone recommend other approaches for dealing with this sensitive, but increasingly common concern?