Even though social media is fully integrated into the global culture and economy, many leaders are still reluctant to put themselves and/or their organizations in a position where they may have to listen to and/or engage with various stakeholders via these public channels. They tend to fear potential reputational harm and/or the stickiness of having to respond to criticism and negative feedback in an open forum.
What these leaders don't realize, it seems, is that they don't really get a vote about that - their brand and messages will be addressed on social media channels with or without their permission, in both ad hoc and organized ways. Though organizational leaders cannot control the conversations taking place on social platforms, there are many things they can do to manage them effectively.
If you and your organization are struggling with developing a best practices approach to managing comments online, the following recommendations and suggestions might help.
Recommendations for Managing Comments Online
Don't try to manage risk that doesn't exist. You don't need to treat all your digital properties the same way. It's better to evaluate each of them independently and customize your approach. If you don't get much (or any) engagement on a given channel, there's probably little to no need to implement posting rules or community management guidelines there. Yes, there is a chance that something could go horribly awry, but if it's a low-probability event it may not be worth the time and effort to be proactive rather than reactive.
Depending on your organization, the places where you're most likely to need guidelines are Facebook (pages and groups), LinkedIn groups, blogs, and/or YouTube channels.
Debalkanize your approaches to engagement and moderation. This is most applicable to organizations that have a large and diverse array of channels for communication and engagement, like news publishers (e.g., New York Times, NPR, Huffington Post), consumer-oriented enterprises (e.g., Kellogg, P&G, Ford, Hilton), and academic institutions (e.g., University of Virginia, MIT). For most people who follow and engage with these organizations, there is just one entity, and that stakeholder perspective should trump the perspectives of internal stakeholders. In other words, it's probably not in the organization's best interests to leave it to individual groups and digital property managers to decide whether and how to handle online comments. There should be a single standard that is applied consistently across all relevant channels.
Posting guidelines should be simple yet comprehensive. In defining posting rules, less is more. The emphasis should be on basic rules of civility and respect for others. Typical guidelines prohibit things like cursing, personal attacks, name calling, threats of violence, off-topic comments, and spam.
The consequences of violating the rules should also be clearly stated, as well as fair and enforceable. They should be applied consistently and without hesitation. Don't pull your punches and don't cut some people some slack while being stricter with others. The potential backlash for allowing exceptions in a public forum aren't worth it.
Make sure people are aware of the posting rules and their consequences. They should be clearly visible and easily accessible. It's probably also a good idea to periodically remind people of the rules to reduce the likelihood of an "I had no idea" defense.
Don't allow anonymous posting. Make readers take responsibility for their words and ideas by clearly identifying themselves (or at least using valid credentials so their identity can be discovered). The law may eventually take care of this by requiring people to use their real identities in cyberspace, but in the meantime you can establish a policy.
Moderate comments, but do so with care. Whenever possible, avoid pre-moderating comments. Either through using technology or human effort, moderate comments AFTER they've been posted, and delete only those that are clear violations of the rules. Let people take individual responsibility for everything else, and let the collective conversation determine the quality of the comments through their recommendations and responses, as well as their ability to report items as inappropriate.
Thought it's important to regularly monitor and moderate content, be careful about deleting what might be considered inappropriate comments. As long as something doesn't violate the posting rules, it should stay - even if you find them personally objectionable or offensive.
Let the community help you manage rule violations. In any civilized community, digital or otherwise, policing is the responsibility of ALL of us. That doesn't mean members should be expected to share the responsibility for moderation, but they can be encouraged to help ensure people abide by the formal rules and informal norms that have been established.
If you're going to offer tools for members of the community to provide feedback on each other's comments (e.g., direct replies, approval/disapproval votes), consider creating guidelines for them as well. Doing so reminds them that this is a responsibility they should take seriously. It also provides you with the ability to apply negative consequences when someone abuses this privilege.
Sensitive subjects are unavoidable. Rather than not raising or allowing them for fear of the conversation, it's better to provide people with a civilized forum for addressing them. If they feel strongly enough about an issue, they'll find a way to express themselves - and if the issue relates to your organization/brand, you're better off allowing those conversations to take place on your digital turf and on your terms.
As a general rule, don't leave comments unanswered. This is true whether the comments are posted publicly or sent privately. The old playground notion of "ignore them and they will go away" does not really translate to cyberspace. Not responding, particularly to negative comments, makes you appear insensitive, weak, uncaring - or worse. It's generally best to acknowledge an initial comment and continue the conversation as long as it's appropriate and productive to do so. If the topic needs to be taken offline, make a clear effort to so. And if it begins to deteriorate and/or escalate into something dysfunctional, walk away. Avoid the temptation to delete the exchange altogether, however. As long as your brand representative has acted appropriately and civilly, let the dialogue stay. Reasonable people will be able to recognize that the other person was at fault and will appreciate your trying to make the best of a difficult situation.
Make sure staff are properly trained, particularly with respect to handling conflict and crises. Among other things, they should know what comments to respond to and which to ignore, as well the most diplomatic ways to correct factual errors, express empathy, and move conversations from the public arena to a private one when necessary.
Other Thoughts and Recommendations for Managing Comments Online
Was there anything I missed? Do you have a specific tip you'd like to recommend. Any questions about the advice I've offered? Great resources to share? As always, I welcome your comments and questions.