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  • Writer's pictureBig Sky Public Relations

It's not (usually) personal...

Philosophy (and practical advice) on getting your haters to hate you a little less online...

You suck. The person who planned this project is an overpaid idiot. The PR firm I talked to is dumb as a box of rocks !!!!!!! [That’s us. That comment is about Big Sky Public Relations.]

I log in and find social media complaints like these waiting for me on a variety of projects. No social media is safe from inflammatory feedback; having a proactive strategy can help diminish the shock and confusion you might feel when your organization is the target of an especially mean-spirited or misleading comment online.

More importantly, meaningful social media interaction can also help your organization turn a hater into an ambassador. Every angry customer is an opportunity to improve their experience and to educate and empower them to spread an accurate message.

Get Back to Me ASAP: A priority for responding to social media comments at Big Sky Public Relations is to reply promptly. Promptly means different things for different organizations, and our goal is always to respond to direct questions within 24 hours during the week. Being responsive is important to us- we never want a commenter with a reasonable concern or question to go long without hearing from us.

Be Nice…No, Actually Be Nice: Empathy is a central value for our company, and social media is an excellent place to practice understanding and care. Many social media responses we field are for road construction projects. Getting stuck in traffic can raise the ire of even the coolest customer. We know that being late for work or being the last parent to pick your child up at daycare due to road construction delays can be the last straw after a hectic day.

We respond to especially challenging comments on road construction notices with an extra helping of empathy and apology- when I’m stuck in traffic, I’m mindful of my frustration and I take that experience to work with me. Leaning into the concerns expressed by commenters, asking for the person to DM your page and talk through the issues they faced or giving a phone number and offering an opportunity to talk to a person who cares can diffuse conflict quickly.

Don’t Get Defensive: People don’t act the same online as they do in person, or even over the phone. Most social media commenters aren’t personally attacking the communications manager and you can’t take anything said online personally. This ties into practicing empathy - if you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their frustration, it’s much easier not to react defensively. A tactic we use it to sign our social responses with our name- it humanizes the interaction and promotes a friendly, sharing atmosphere on your thread.

Educate! One of my favorite conversations I’ve had on a Facebook thread started out with a commenter asking why a specific infrastructure project wasn’t done differently- and she had a great point. If the project was done differently, she and her neighbors would have been inconvenienced less. Working closely with a project manager, we gave her a long, thoughtful, specific answer. She replied:

“that’s not really what I asked.” (with five likes on her comment).

And that’s a deflating moment, to know you’ve offered your best information and spent valuable time on a response only to fail to help the commenter. We came back and figured out where our language wasn’t clear and where the answer could be refined. She had more questions, which we answered, and finally she said:

“Ahhhh! J thank you for the follow ups! Being informed is everything!”

It’s worth your time to work out a better answer, especially when you know others are watching (and lots of folks are watching online). Every answer is an opportunity to educate the commenter, to improve their perception of the client, to demonstrate care across social media, and to simply respond to commenters who holler into the void. Surprise them by responding back.

Don’t Talk Back: A final note on when we don’t respond to social media comments. Big Sky PR has a strong culture of care for our clients and for our colleagues- and that means that we never expect anyone to respond to abusive, threatening or foully-worded comments. One client’s social media settings automatically hide any comments with swear words (bless them). Otherwise, our policy is to hide truly offensive comments that don’t add to a constructive conversation. But, comments that are concerned or confused or complaining don’t get hidden. Those are opportunities to educate and inform our constituents.

There are lots of rules for online commenting- this is by no means an exhaustive list of Do’s and Don’ts. When we’re stumped, we turn to our peers and to our office mates down the hall to brainstorm on thoughtful responses. It gets easier to turn on your computer and find someone melting down on a carefully crafted social media post. For me, practice makes perfect-ish as I try to build trust by offering caring and human responses in a digital space.

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