A Commentary on Our Lives

Posted on March 4, 2014

Knope of the Week winner Patrick Rollens is back for another installment of his “Broken Social Scene” column.  This time he explains how to deal with the negative  comments that citizens might post on your Facebook page.  These sometimes snarky posts can pose real issues for local governments and Patrick has a plan for how to deal with them.


Regular readers will know that I’m a big advocate for carefully controlling your organization’s social media presence. Sure, the face you present to the outside world can be snarky and carefree, full of cat photos and celebrity memes, but behind the scenes you should keep a pretty firm handle on the ins and outs of your social media presence. With that said, one thing you can’t control is what other people say about you online. That’s what we’ll focus on in this column.

March Madness Mailbag Edition

mailbagBefore I get to that, though, I wanted to throw out an idea. I’d like to make next month’s column into a mailbag edition, where I try to answer questions from readers and address topics they find important. It can be anything – social media, communications, mid-career changes, miniature wargaming, whatever. Just make sure you email me by March 15 so I can squeeze it in. Thanks!

Three Strategies for Responding to Online Comments                                     

So where were we? Oh yes: dealing with pesky, nasty or downright offensive comments from social media users online.

images (7)This phenomenon most often manifests itself on Facebook. Everyone and their brother has an account, and users skew toward the older demographic, so they may or may not understand the nuances of Internet etiquette. Fans and followers of your organization’s Facebook page can (and will) offer up a steady of comments, complaints and even cheap shots on your page. Some may be legitimate service requests. Others are almost certainly just folks blowing off steam. Elected officials will doubtless wince at both. You’ll have to use your judgment to figure out what exactly the person is getting at, and how your organization can respond. During Oak Park’s harsh winter (replete with three, count ‘em, three polar vortices) our Facebook page was often the first point of contact for people dealing with frozen pipes and plowed-in cars.

Based on what I’ve seen in my short career in local government, most organizations choose to handle these types of comments in one of three ways. (Note that I’m only talking about what we might call “venting” – that is, exasperated posts from folks who are fed up with some particularly frustrating interaction or service. They’re peeved, but civil. Anything that goes beyond that, such as vulgarity, racism or personal threats, should be removed immediately and/or dealt with by the manager’s office.)

1. Let It Be, Let It Be

Some communications managers advocate just leaving the offending comment up there for all the world to see. I generally subscribe to this practice – unless someone has posted something blatantly terrible, I’ll leave most complaints alone and just let ‘em get pushed on down the page by new content. If it’s a legitimate question or request for assistance, of course, I’ll jump in ASAP and either find an answer for the person or steer them to someone who can help. But the vast majority of knee-jerk snarky Facebook comments don’t merit a response.


One hidden benefit of just leaving snarky stuff alone is that, often, the online community will rally around you. This happened a couple months ago during Oak Park’s first polar vortex. One online commenter told us what he thought of our suggestion to help shovel snow by the fire hydrants on his block – and soon thereafter, several other Facebook users chimed in to support us.

2. Engage the Good-Natured and Mean-Spirited


My friend and colleague Bridget Doyle, who writes the Communication Breakdown column here on sarahhellems.wpengine.com, tries to engage with most Facebook commenters, whether they’re good-natured or mean-spirited. By setting a precedent that you’ll jump in, even with a simple “Thanks, we’ll look into it,” you’ve let your Facebook fans know that you’re an active page manager and you won’t tolerate nasty comments. This helps foster a friendly, safe environment on your page, which in turn encourages more interaction and engagement.

3. Avoid Being a Community Bulletin Board        

I was at an all-day social media workshop last year, and one attendee described how his town’s stance on Facebook comments: write down the information, follow up with the commenter and then delete the comment from the page. The net result was a sterile, context-free Facebook page that operated more like a community bulletin board than an actual social media site. Granted, the town in question probably avoided any tough decisions regarding whether or not to take down certain comments. But the net effect was a rather hollow experience for residents seeking greater interaction with their local government on social media.

Rottenecards_45598994_7rybrh4c26There’s no right or wrong way to handle snarky comments on social media sites. The most important thing is to be aware of how the public (and the Internet at large) will perceive your response. Look for an opportunity to be instructive or helpful, and don’t take anything personally. It all comes back to my mantra for social media: be a good citizen!

Supplemental Reading

Two Communicators, Two Municipalities, One Message for Winter Weather

Broken Social Scene: Be a Control Freak

Report: The Social Media Demographic

Broken Social Scene: Buying Into Social Media

A Quickly Expanding Midwest ELGL

An Inside Look at Buzzfeed’s Viral-Animal “Beastmasters”

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