Media & PR

Share This Too – More Social Media Solutions for PR Professionals

Hooray. The latest book I’ve contributed to is available from Amazon:

SShare This Toohare This Too isn’t just a book about a specialist area of public relations; it is about how the entire practice of PR is evolving and the immediate future of the profession.

Share This was conceived as a practical handbook for communication and public relations practitioners interested in changes taking place in public relations and the media. Share This Too is even more ambitious. It’s a guide for anyone that works in communications or public relations.

It contains brand new and original material by more than 30 contributors – each of whom is an acknowledged expert in their field.

Created by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Social Media Panel, Share This Too probes deeply into the state of the art theory, delivery and evaluation of 21st century public relations and communication. This practical handbook has been created by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Social Media Panel which provides leadership and guidance to the Institute, its members and the wider public relations profession.

You can order your own copy here and here is my own chapter – about dealing with nastiness and trolling online:

The Unsocial Web

Social media can appear a very unfriendly and rude place at times. However, with a mix of common sense, preparation and careful management you can steer around the unsociable corners and bask in the benefits of the social ones.

Only a few years ago the simple news that someone was joining Twitter was often newsworthy. Now it is commonplace and only newsworthy when it is the most prominent of people.[1] But Twitter still hits the mainstream news regularly – with stories about people being questioned by the police for what they have said on it.

Beneath all the debate over how far the law should circumscribe what people can say on Twitter, there is widespread agreement that social media contains all sorts of unsociable, rude, drunk or threatening comments at times. And no surprise either – for social media is made up of humans and humanity has always had its unsociable edge.

Yet just as the rest of our lives does not have to be over-run with such behaviour, nor does our slice of social media. It is a matter of choice. Not a matter of easy, neat, perfect choice but a choice nonetheless as we have control over where we go, what we do and how we interact with others. Just as avoiding walking past a notorious pub at chucking out time is a sensible way to avoid problems on a Friday night, so too there are choices are where we go and what we do online.

Offline those choices can seem a chore, unreasonably cramping our freedom. Online, however, it is easier to make those choices, exert that influence – and not feel our freedom has been nearly as cramped. Easier, that is, if you understand how to make the choices and which ones matter most.

The three problems to avoid

For those acting at the intersection of public relations and social media, there are usually three related problems to avoid. First, saying something either that gets you or your firm the sack or has the police come calling, making you an instant inductee into the ‘How not to do social media’ Hall of Fame.

Second, having a social media presence run for a client overrun with hostile or – even worse – mocking comments and feedback.

The third is often forgotten, but one to cling to dearly as you navigate around the first two. That is to become so scared of what interaction might result in that you close your ears (and stick your hands over your clients’ ears too, just to be safe) to the negative comments out there. That is a danger because sometimes the critics are right. There might actually be something useful or even urgent to learn in amid the hyperventilating angst.

(It is also worth remembering that the exceptionally rude person throwing invective your way may be more deserving of sympathy than ire. For all the warnings about the modern habit of prescribing a medical explanation to everyone’s behaviour, there are people with mental health issues and they do use social media. I am pretty sure, for example, that the one case I have directly experienced where online abuse turned into a series of seriously unpleasant phone calls was due to someone who needed medical help.)

A while back I found myself sat surrounded by litter as a firm’s cleaners had failed to do their job properly that morning. I took to social media to let the firm know. The result? Silence. What could have been a useful report to help them identify someone who wasn’t doing their job properly or was being asked to do too much and so couldn’t do their job properly was instead consigned to the internet dustbin. My frustration but their loss.

Knowing this is why Walmart took so enthusiastically to social media. For a firm often at the centre of public controversy, it may seem surprising they were so keen to embrace a medium through which people could readily knock them. What Walmart’s senior managers appreciated, however, was that the easier it is for people to moan, the easier it is for them to pick up just the sorts of problems – a faulty product, a badly run store – which might otherwise slip through their management systems or only percolate upwards slowly. Listening to complaints lets you spot what needs fixing, fast. It is a vital safety net to cover the inevitable slip ups in even the best management systems.

That is all why, as with offline life, the skill is to manage and sort criticism, not hide hermit-like in electronic isolation ignoring everyone.

With that in mind, how best then to tackle the two main issues?

Staying out of trouble

The first – how to avoid saying something that causes trouble – is the most straight-forward, at least in theory. Unless you deliberately wish to be edgy and court controversy (which can be a route to publicity and success, of course), simply avoid saying things online which you would not want either a job interviewer to have read just before you walk into the room or your mother to see just before you turn up for Christmas. (Substitute father / aunt / vicar / Richard Dawkins depending on your own family and faith setup.)

In theory, privacy settings can be your friend and carve out space for father / aunt / vicar / Richard Dawkin offending comments without them ever seeing them. In theory. The practice is rather harder to carry out.

Mistakes are easy to make, especially as privacy setting become increasing complicated and span multiple services supplied by the same firm. In fairness to those writing the accompanying text, these days they are often in fairly clean plain English – but even simple-sounding phrases can be tricky to fully fathom, and anyway, a multitude of simple choices itself often ends up being confusing.

Whilst writing this, for example, I took a gander through all the privacy settings Facebook offers me. I got up to 86 different options before getting bored with my counting. Even with each of them being apparently simple choices to make, the odds of me getting one wrong out of the 86 plus is non-trivial.

As if that is not enough, then there is the problem of keeping up with changes to the privacy settings, not to mention changes in who you want to see your ‘private’ content as your life and career evolve.

What that all means is that privacy settings are a handy tool for refinement but a pretty poor safety net. More like a safety colander. The real protection comes from not putting content online in the first place.

How to manage feedback and responses

Turning then to the second problem, that of how to manage the quality of user feedback and user-generated content on the social media presences of clients, what should you do?

Handling and minimising anti-social behaviour online has some similarities with doing so offline, and these similarities make the ‘broken windows theory’ of criminologists a useful starting point for planning your online approach.

In the offline world, there is good evidence that allowing apparently low-level problems such as graffiti and the eponymous broken windows to fester in a community ends up encouraging more and worse criminal behaviour. Tackling the low-level problems, by contrast, helps to prevent more serious problems too as otherwise seeing the fruits of other people’s bad behaviour encourages more and worse bad behaviour.

As one writer put it applying this to the online world [2]:

Much of the tone of discourse online is governed by the level of moderation and to what extent people are encouraged to “own” their words. When forums, message boards, and blog comment threads with more than a handful of participants are unmoderated, bad behavior follows. The appearance of one troll encourages others. Undeleted hateful or ad hominem comments are an indication that that sort of thing is allowable behavior and encourages more of the same. Those commenters who are normally respectable participants are emboldened by the uptick in bad behavior and misbehave themselves. More likely, they’re discouraged from helping with the community moderation process of keeping their peers in line with social pressure. Or they stop visiting the site altogether…

Very quickly, the situation is out of control and your message board is the online equivalent of South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s, inhabited by roving gangs armed with hate speech, fueled by the need for attention, making things difficult for those who wish to carry on useful conversations.

Search engines also kick in an extra problem. If you have spam comments appearing on a site or page, it makes it look less trustworthy and reputable in the eyes of not only your readers but also search engine algorithms, hitting your search engine prominence.

Therefore, the first step is to make sure you select platforms for your online activities which provide appropriate environments to encourage good behaviour and to let you manage it. This can require quite subtle technological knowledge and experience at times. For example, Facebook generally has a better tone of conversation than many other platforms due to nearly everyone on it using their real name, with their comments being closely associated with who they really are. However, the Facebook comments feature on third-party websites offers only relatively crude moderation options, which can more than cancel out the other Facebook benefits.

Take a look around at existing users of a platform to see what sort of comments they tend to attract. YouTube, for example, is well known for the less than salubrious nature of many of its comment threads. That may not be a reason to avoid it, but it means going in eyes open.

Then, based on this background knowledge, make sure you go through all the moderation and discussion options. For example, on YouTube many people now choose to disable all comments – avoiding the non-salubrious problem but, if the films are embedded on their own sites with their own comment systems, still allowing interaction.

An important decision is whether or not to take the option, where offered, of ‘pre-moderating’ everything, that is only letting comments appear after someone has approved them. This provides a sure quality control but comes at a cost. It means the pace of online conversation is slowed up unless you invest in the time to regularly check and moderate comments. It also can come with a legal risk. If you pre-moderate everything and then publish a libellous comment, your legal defences are much weaker than if you automatically publish everything and only moderate after the event.

Whichever approach you take, alongside the technical decisions you should have a published (and sensible!) moderation policy, both as a guide for your work and also as an answer to public questions about what is being done and why.

A good starting point often are the BBC’s rules, though bear in mind that the BBC being the body it is, they are perhaps a little more prescriptive and a little longer than you might need: [3]

We reserve the right to fail comments which…

  • Are considered likely to disrupt, provoke, attack or offend others
  • Are racist, sexist, homophobic, sexually explicit, abusive or otherwise objectionable
  • Contain swear words or other language likely to offend
  • Break the law or condone or encourage unlawful activity. This includes breach of copyright, defamation and contempt of court.
  • Advertise products or services for profit or gain
  • Are seen to impersonate someone else
  • Include contact details such as phone numbers, postal or email addresses
  • Are written in anything other than English – Welsh and Gaelic may be used where expressly stated
  • Contain links to other websites which break our Editorial Guidelines
  • Describe or encourage activities which could endanger the safety or well-being of others
  • Are considered to be “spam”, that is posts containing the same, or similar, content posted multiple times
  • Are considered to be off-topic for the blog discussion

What the BBC also has, and you should too, is an escalation policy so everyone knows how to deal with something which appears more serious – such as an allegedly libellous comment or something which gives out personal information about someone that is inappropriate. Make sure you know who gets involved, where the relevant expert advice will come from and who makes the decisions if such an event were to happen.

Alongside this, you should have an effective spam filter (or be using a platform that has one built in). The volume of spam comments posted up on even low-traffic blogs can be eye-watering. There is good and free or cheap software that saves you from having to manually handle such voluminous crud.

Next, think about how you might want to structure feedback to help the quality rise. Should you have options to let people vote on it? Or options to let particular pieces of feedback be highlighted as star contributions?

Often this is helpful, but not always. Letting readers vote comments up or down, for example, can encourage group think and the dominance of the majority view rather than debate and diversity. Think how rare it is to see someone say, “I think your view is totally wrong but it is an interesting contribution to the debate so thank you for making it”. Instead, they just hit the thumbs down button.

Then there is how you interact with comments. Just as a good meeting chair can bring out the best of an audience or pander to its worst, so interaction can encourage or discourage the non-window breakers. Respond positively, thank people, answer questions and follow up complaints. That encourages better interaction and helps drive the bad aside.

When doing so, ignore – yes, ignore – the advice “don’t feed the trolls”. You should feed them – once. There are all sorts of reasons why people may appearing to be trolling the once but actually be redeemable. Poorly chosen wording, a really bad day, a lack of self-awareness or whatever. One polite attempt at giving them a second chance is worthwhile. It will not always work, yet is worth trying for the occasions it does. [4]

Conclusion

Remember all through this – you cannot control other people’s behaviour on the internet, but you can set the environment and you can influence it. Get that right and the unsociable side of social networking becomes an occasional annoyance rather than a serious problem.

 

[1] For example, the Pope in late 2012.
[2] http://www.kottke.org/08/12/does-the-broken-windows-theory-hold-online
[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/moderation.shtml
[4] See https://www.markpack.org.uk/27100/why-you-should-feed-the-trolls/ for more on this.

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