When Social Media Gets Ugly

By Amy Larsen, Client Success Consultant at GovDelivery (cross post from Reachthepublic.com)

Social media can be a beautiful thing. With unlimited possibilities for connections with billions of people worldwide, friendships can be strengthened, families can connect across the globe, and loyal customers can become raving fans, even friends, of your organization. But like most things, social media has a dark side – the side that lets users openly express their unfiltered anger, frustration, even full on rage toward organizations and other people. Some individuals, known as trolls in Web vernacular, even purposefully try to provoke more outrage from other people in comments or tweets. Besides the obvious question of how one finds the time to argue with others online, the question of how to deal with digital discord is one that many organizations struggle with. We’ve pulled together a few tips to help you create a more harmonious online community, and to continue to help you cultivate productive online engagement.

1) Act Quickly – The longer you wait to address whatever your fans and followers are upset about, the less time you’ll have to maintain some control over the social situation. Waiting hours, or days, to address your audience may just make things worse, by allowing people to craft their own narratives about how your organization may have slipped up. Present what you’re doing to work on the situation, and talk about steps you’re taking to make sure your customers are satisfied.

2) Customer Service Mode: Engage – Writing off all negative comments as trolling, or worse, deleting negative comments without response, may further incite the ire of your audience. If the comment is serious enough, or violates the terms of your online communications policy, you may consider documenting it and reporting it to the correct authorities.Otherwise, try to take negative conversations offline as quickly as possible by using direct messages or requesting to have a conversation directly with the individual through a private channel (email, phone call, ticketing system) if they are especially upset. Do what you can to defuse the issue, or present facts that might help an individual better understand the full circumstances around the situation. If the commenter truly wants to express feedback, work with them as you’d work with anyone who brings an issue to your agency’s attention. Making your audience feel valued and that their feedback is important is a great first step to easing tensions.

3) Avoid Vagueness, Address Concerns – People don’t want to

express their feelings about a situation and in return, receive a robotic response that does not address their concerns. Your tone should indicate that you care about the frustrations of your stakeholders, that you’re presenting facts and events honestly, and that you’re working to make the situation right. Find some empathy and talk to your subscribers from a place of understanding to help your audience understand that you’re listening to the feedback and seek to improve the situation. In addition to your current communications, point people back to viable options to get information from you on a regular basis that will help them understand how you’re working to best serve them. Encouraging people to subscribe or follow you for more updates as situations progress via email, SMS or Twitter can do a lot to help you continuously gain the trust of your audience, instead of having temporary communications during difficult circumstances.

4) This too shall pass – Negative feedback, while it may seem like the end of the world, happens every day to countless individuals, companies and agencies. It’s part of the social media game, and just because you’re not participating doesn’t mean you’re not being talked about, either negatively or positively. You may be surprised to learn that if you cultivate an engaged community, your followers will help moderate discussions, and positive, constructive feedback and support are sometimes among the most highly rated comments in discussion threads.Take negative situations and use them as an excuse to make someone’s day, to solve a problem, and to make direct connections with your audience members.

Whether something was posted in error, your clever hashtag attempt turned into a complete debacle, or there’s a situation impacting your online audience in their everyday lives, you’re probably going to hear about it on social media. Take each social media mishap as a lesson on how to improve – whether that means rethinking your social policy, reassigning resources to support online engagement, or finding a way to head off potential issues in the future. Thinking about different channels to better communicate major issues with your stakeholders before major issues occur may also go a long way in quelling social media riots – a little good communication before inconvenient events can go a long way, and having reliable direct communications with subscribers through multiple channels (think email, website updates, and SMS messages) can help you avoid the ugly comments that you may get on your most visible channels.

What best practices have you seen or implemented in your own strategy during social media mishaps? Let us know in the comments.

Image sources

Twitter image: San Francisco Municipal Transit Twitter feed (@sfmta_muni)

Facebook image: San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Facebook Page

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