How to Deal with Backlash in Social Media Engagement

Social media engagement involves humans. You're human. Your team is human. All the people behind the avatars on all the social networks are human. Human beings are complex, emotional beings who can be sensitive and who may not excel at online communications. At some point, you and your company may experience negative, or even hostile, behavior from someone online.

Follow these steps to prepare for potential backlash and then handle it effectively:

  1. Pay attention.

    Hone your "digital listening" skills by carefully monitoring your social channels and the web at large to hear the positive comments about you and your company — and the negative ones.

  2. Assess thoughtfully.

    Avoid the urge to panic and respond in a knee-jerk fashion. Instead, evaluate a person's true meaning or motivation versus a person's words. Misinterpreting a snarky comment as criticism, for example, can turn a non-issue into a crisis.

  3. Address negativity quickly.

    Every minute counts when you're faced with a negative comment in a social network. You may have many responsibilities to tend to, but someone who takes the time to complain about you or your company is often waiting for a response.

    Have a plan in place for crisis communications so that you know the options for responding. Use a rational, respectful tone in your response. Even an awkward response buys you time to further assess and address the situation.

  4. Acknowledge the person's feelings and perceptions.

    After you review the situation and you're ready to address the comment, understand that strong emotions may have prompted it. Use professional communications skills, and start your response with a statement to defuse those emotions, such as "I hear your frustration" or "We realize that the situation is challenging." Don't invalidate the person's comments defensively — even someone who is incorrect deserves to be heard.

  5. Don't complicate.

    Here's the difference between a well-handled social media engagement situation and a full-blown crisis: The former involves preparedness and sensitivity; the latter, defensiveness and overthinking. Don't run everything past hierarchies and committees in order to put a response on record.

  6. Be human.

    Don't reply unemotionally. Be frank with the other person and all members of your online community who may be watching. People want to see a human response to a crisis, not an overproduced, formulaic, or canned reply. You may have to ask a lawyer or the legal department about admitting fault. But you can at least apologize that something has upset the other person.

  7. Take it offline.

    Don't carry out any crisis control entirely in public. Ask to contact an unhappy individual privately and work to resolve the issue one-to-one.

  8. Be transparent.

    The flip side of going private is not to conduct communications so secretly that people perceive a cover-up. Strike a balance between public and private engagement when the discussion gets heated.

  9. Fix the problem.

    If someone attempts to bring a problem to your attention publicly, and it's truly one that you can solve, admit it, address it, and fix it. If you can't solve it, express empathy with the emotion being expressed.

    If nothing is truly wrong but someone perceives that it is, don't dismiss those concerns. Take every exchange seriously, and do your best to resolve what you can or provide a resolution or consolation.

  10. Tell your story.

    Telling your own story throughout the "fixing" process can help defuse an issue. Providing updates such as "We're looking into that issue" and "We've taken care of that situation" lets anyone paying attention see that you're attentive and responsive and taking care of the matter even when you're behind the scene.

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