How do you respond to a negative comment in an online community, on your union’s web page, or your union’s Facebook page, or sent to your union’s Twitter account?
Should you shut them down? Delete them? Edit them? Ban the commenter? Fight them? Ignore them?
There is no one-size fits all approach to dealing with critical or hostile comments. Most responses are situation-specific. However, I have had some experience with this in my role managing various union online communities, websites and social media, during times of industrial conflict.
Here are my three “do’s” and “don’t’s”.
1. Don’t ignore the comment
I don’t mean you need to respond immediately, but don’t assume that just be leaving the criticism unanswered, people will get bored and go away. Social media, like Facebook, or comments on your union’s website, are read by many more people than just those who leave comments. Especially on Facebook, a critical comment can actually make your initial update and the comment more likely to be seen by other “fans” of your Facebook page. (This is due to Facebook’s secret algorithm prioritising content with high levels of engagement, even negative engagement.) Ignoring a critical comment can be perceived by other people reading your Facebook page or website as a de facto admission that the criticism is correct. If can leave space or give oxygen to hostile forces, who use your silence as further ammunition to criticise your union.
Remember also that some criticism is legitimate and can point out your error. Ignoring the criticism could mean you miss out on an opportunity to be more responsive to your members. Not everyone who complains is a “problem member” or “trouble-maker” and they could be pointing out a serious issue; effectively doing you a favour!
Consider the other “do’s” and “don’t’s” before you respond. If you’re lucky, one or more of your supporters may actually respond on your behalf.
2. Do have a comment policy
Especially for your union’s website, having a comment policy will save you a lot of time and heartache down the line. The comment policy should set out the criteria for acceptable commenting – for example, no abuse, no swearing, no posting of personal information, etc. It should also set out what happens to a comment that breaks the policy. If the abusive or critical comments breaches the policy, then you should decide how to respond. This policy gives you the ethical authority to edit or delete comments that don’t abide by the policy.
Having a policy doesn’t mean that everything needs to be moderated. This can be potentially a lot of work for someone (probably the union’s communications officer or an organiser). If there is a clear (and fair-minded) comments policy, people will self-moderate and most people will not go out of their way to break the policy. However, if you are moderating comments, make sure that you (the moderator) follow your own policy.
On social media sites, it can be harder. You can’t easily link to comment policies on Facebook or Twitter. However, having that policy does give you guidelines on how to respond to critical tweets or Facebook comments.You can refer people who question your moderation or responses to your policy.
3. Do acknowledge if you edit or delete a comment
If you do edit or delete a comment, don’t try to hide it. The Internet is an amazing thing and caches can pop up with the original comment. Or worse, the commenter (or others) may notice and have kept the original comment. This can lead to even more criticism and escalate the situation.
On social media there can be a delay in the comment being deleted – so it’s a good idea to acknowledge it. For example, many people use Twitter clients like Tweetdeck, which can leave a tweet in the person’s feed for several hours after its been deleted. Similar issues exist with Facebook.
Acknowledging whether you’ve edited a comment – or deleted it – shows that you are being transparent. So long as your edits or deletions are in accordance with your policy. You don’t want to be (or appear) to be capricious or arbitrary – especially when dealing with criticism.