My Dad is fond of telling the urban myth of a man who saw cockroaches in the aisle of a plane while traveling for business and wrote an angry letter to the airline demanding that they fix their problem. In response, he received a wonderful letter apologizing for his experience and assuring him that the plane had been fumigated and given an intense cleaning so no other travelers would have the same bad experience with that plane. He finished reading the letter feeling very impressed with the airline’s level of customer service and care...until he flipped over the letter and noticed a sticky note that said, “Send this idiot the standard cockroach letter.”
None of us would ever want a visitor or commenter to have an experience like this on our congregation’s social media pages or website, but without a plan for how we will respond to all sorts of comments—satisfied, insulting, or frustrated—we can inadvertently end up responding with our own “standard cockroach letter.” Most positive responses are easy to deal with—offering a pleased “We’re glad you joined us!” or “Thanks for getting involved in this discussion” is easy. But negative responses and interpersonal conflict in comment threads are much harder to handle. To avoid failing while dealing with these, there are a few things we should think about.
Some congregations and organizations choose to not respond when something negative happens in the comments section of their posts, or when someone leaves a negative review. This can seem like a smart strategy, as it keeps the organization from appearing confrontational or insincere. It’s especially tempting to ignore these things when you can be certain that it’s not someone from inside your group who has left the comment. Social media managers may feel that it’s better to let a casual commenter be ignored or even be attacked by others rather than risk offending members.
Refusing to step in and either redirect the conversation or remind your followers to “play nicely” tells the visitor and others that the leadership is uninterested in actually leading, doesn’t care about those outside of the group, or actually approves of what is being said. It doesn’t matter if that’s what the leaders actually feel—the impression is what matters.
Your carefully designed ad campaigns or social posts are important, but the way your page admins and followers interact with each other and visitors is where your real reputation comes from. Keep in mind that what goes on in “private” groups is also very easily shared outside of your group as well. Do you kindly but firmly shut down gossip? Do you deal with controversy in a healthy way? Do you identify and deal with repeat offenders in a way that prevents abuse? All of those choices are what people are really looking at, rather than your beautiful new logo or ad.
Your online interactions, both with those who are inside and outside of your congregational community, are one way people get to know your congregation. The impression they develop of your group while interacting with you online is just as important as what they will experience in person. It’s important to understand that your core supporters will forgive your mistakes, but visitors will not. If you don’t handle comments from visitors well, they have no reason to give you a second chance or find out if you’re different in person, and it will be extremely difficult to change their impression of you.
It can be very tempting to delete any comments or reviews that are not positive, especially as it’s easier than trying to come up with a healthy and polite response. But removing a comment doesn’t remove the problem, and it sends a very clear message that you are uninterested in that person or their concerns.
It can be helpful to develop a set of safe, approved responses to use when someone is negative or aggressive, especially if you might be nervous about engaging with your critics. Be aware, though, that people who are leaving negative comments do not want to be placated—they want to be engaged and to see what you offer as a solution. Your response shows how much, or even if, you care about the person and the issue.
Sometimes, despite your best attempts at a civil discussion, an issue cannot be solved in a written, public comment thread. If the issue is with a member of your congregation or a family in your school, request that they come in to speak to the appropriate person about their concerns. If it is with someone in the community, the same offer can be made, though perhaps at a neutral public space like a café or library. If your community members are arguing with each other or with a visitor, it can be helpful to send a private message to those involved asking them to step back and disengage from the conflict. If that doesn’t work, consider deleting the post altogether.
A good rule of thumb is to only pursue two negative comments in any post from someone before switching the venue of any further communication to private messages. (Again, keep in mind that “private messages” are easily shared in public!) Two responses is a good attempt at clarifying the issue at hand or providing healthy mediation. Any more than that is likely to seem like aggression, and is unlikely to actually resolve the problem.
Not everyone who volunteers to be a page administrator or social media manager should be, and it can be hard to take that privilege away from someone who isn’t doing it responsibly. A key strategy should be to ensure that all parties agree that any page that claims to be an official page belongs to the congregation or school, and not to an individual who might have started it up on behalf of the congregation.
Handling your congregation’s social media isn’t just a task, it’s a ministry opportunity. Be sure that you are handling it as such.