When Should You STOP Talking On Social?

I’ve done enough work in social media to have a pretty good series of steps to follow when things go right. Do the right things, get certain results, repeat. I use my personal social media accounts to do experiments on what is/isn’t appropriate and to try out new tools so that I don’t do stupid things with client’s accounts.

But what do you do when the proverbial feces hits the ceiling mounted air circulation device?

Usually when a company runs into problems on social media, it’s because the person behind the Twitter account typed something stupid. This is something I’ve addressed many times before, because EVERYBODY tweets stupid things from time to time. In almost every case, the answer is to delete the offending post or tweet, and then apologize. In time, it will blow over. But what if the problem is even bigger than that? What if your company causes the death of a bunch of people, like what happened to Maple Leaf Foods in 2008 when a Listeria outbreak caused the deaths of 22 people?

Or, what happens if a member of the Regina Police Service shoots a dog in a private citizen’s backyard?

First, let me be clear that I’m not passing any judgement on the police officer or the actions of the police officer. There will be an investigation, and the truth will come out. Instead, I want to talk about the way that the Regina Police Service handled their social media – specifically their Facebook account.

This was the right call in this situation.

Some people will say that this is exactly when social media should be used – so that the public can have their say and get their message out. And I agree. Except when this happens:

A Social Contract

There aren’t enough police officers, members of the military, or Boy Scouts in the world to keep the rule of law if people don’t act appropriately. We have a social contract in our society.

Thomas Hobbes famously said that in a “state of nature” human life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. In the absence of political order and law, everyone would have unlimited natural freedoms, including the “right to all things” and thus the freedom to plunder, rape, and murder; there would be an endless “war of all against all” (bellum omnium contra omnes). To avoid this, free men contract with each other to establish political community i.e. civil society through a social contract in which they all gain security in return for subjecting themselves to an absolute Sovereign, preferably (for Hobbes) a monarch.”

~Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_contract)

We have a society with free speech not because of the things our politicians tells us, but because we all agree that we should have a society with free speech. We have a society with laws because we all agree that we should have a society with laws. There aren’t enough police officers to actually ‘enforce the law’ as we like to say – just enough to enforce the law among people who have chosen not to abide by the conventions of our society.

In social media terms, our job is to engage stakeholders in discussion. But there are times when discussion is no longer what is occurring. Mr. Perrini, from the clip above, shows his location as Tuscon, Arizona. Mr. Perrini is not a stakeholder of the Regina Police Service, nor are his comments discussion – they are inflammatory and designed to evoke feelings of anger and malice. Then there are these two:

Again, these are not topics of discussion. The Regina Police Service can not debate, educate, or engage with people who make comments like this. So they did what I would do – created a post which says that they are closing the account temporarily and explaining exactly why they are doing it.

I honestly don’t know what happened in that yard – the incident is under investigation, and the truth will come out. But this post isn’t about the truth, it’s about people posting hateful things on a Facebook wall. And in your business, you don’t need to let people post hateful things on your Facebook wall. It is not your responsibility to provide an outlet for people to vent. So, let them know that the conversation has taken a turn that you cannot abide. Thank them for their opinions. And lock the wall down for the time being. Step away from the Twitter. In time, people will calm down, and things will return to normal.

The Aftermath

So, in my professional opinion, the Regina Police Service did the right thing by closing their Facebook wall for the time being. I stated above that the incident is under investigation – and that is a key factor in all of this. The Regina Police Service is going to have to come back online and tell everyone the results of that investigation. And when they do, they are going to get a load of hate mail again. When they do that, they will need to realize that this time – they have started the conversation, and they are going to have to let people say what they want to say. Here’s how I would handle that:

Create a single post which states that you will be sharing the results of the investigation. Admit that not everyone is going to be happy with the results. Ask them to keep their comments respectful and within the post – not on the wall, or in the comments of other posts, etc. And then tell the people that their opinions are important to the Regina Police Service, but that they will only be taking comments on this post for 48 hours, after which the comments will be archived and the comments turned off. In truth, they’ll probably have to simply delete the post after recording everybody’s comments.

And that’s it. You can’t make everybody happy in every situation. Sometimes, you need to pull the plug on social media for a short time. But before you do it – you need to make sure that you are completely transparent as to why you are doing it. Even something like this will blow over in time. However, if the RPS had kept their page active, had continued to let people from around the world vent and shout, eventually someone would have done or said something which could not be forgotten – a criminal threat perhaps – and that would not have simply blown over.

As much as the internet allows us instant access to the sum of the world’s knowledge and the ability to communicate instantly with anybody, anywhere – it also affords us one other luxury: the ability to take a moment, gather our thoughts, and let cooler heads prevail. When you are responsible for a Facebook page, it is your responsibility to make sure that sometimes you give people the opportunity to cool down.

 

 

6 Comments

  1. Ryan,

    I somewhat disagree with your analysis. Although I think the RPS has done a great job at building an engaged audience online (12k fans! nice work), I feel their response to this was reactionary and not well thought out. Granted this is a complicated issue, but here are a few ideas that could have aided in this situation:

    1. Ensure they have the proper budget ensure this activity is resourced properly. With over 12000 fans, this is a primary and critical point of contact for the RPS. Whether they like it or not, the public is demanding this be a place to engage, report, complain, compliment etc. The genie is out of the bottle, so why not ensure that this gets the same attention as a call center? This would include more staff and better management software. Or choose to close it down entirely. But operating this with only a partial foot in the water is only going to result in more issues like this.

    2. Post a set of guidelines/policies and ensure that these are well-communicated. I don’t see this anywhere on the page. This could be contained within a tab. These could include acceptable use, hours of maintenance (perhaps it should be 24 hrs?), discussion re: what is legal/vs not legal.

    3. Have a ‘social media triage procedure’ for dealing with difficult posts. In this case I would have recommended: 1. Delete posts that use profanity or don’t comply with RPS acceptable use. 2. Log posts that are illegal. 3. Only respond to correct facts. 4. Keep silent where facts are fuzzy. 5. Stay out of the ‘back and forth mudslinging’; simply ignore it.

    4. Don’t worry about talking. Focus on listening.

    In the title of your post you ask ‘When should you STOP talking on social media?’ But in this case by disabling the public posting it wasn’t a matter of stopping talking, it was a matter of stopping listening. This is where I think this is a mistake. The internet is always going to be filled with trolls, but I think accepting a culture of ‘selective listening’ is a dangerous slippery slope. Even if the conversation is difficult and emotionally charged, I think hearing both sides of a discussion is worthy. With that said, moderating posts is fine…but make sure there are guidelines on moderation.

    I could go on, but some additional food for thought. Thanks for starting the discussion, these are important topics to discuss.

    Cheers,
    Mike

  2. Agreed Ryan! Social is a place for sharing ideas and information. Hate has no place here…

    Leasa

  3. Thanks for chiming in Mike. You raised some good points. First, there is always more than one way to deal with something – and some of your ideas would work well.

    1. The fact that there are 12k likes on the page tells me that the public wants the RPS to have a page, so IMO getting rid of it is out of the question. I’m sure the social media people would love more budget, but everybody needs to operate with the budgets that they have. In this case, I’m not sure it would help – more people would just mean you’d just be paying professionals to delete garbage posts.

    2. I think the ‘about’ section lays this out pretty clearly – but your idea of a tab would be a good one for the RPS to implement.

    3. Generally, I agree. From what I know of the RPS page, this is actually what they do. I believe that what happened here is that they were completely over run with comments. Also, deleting select posts can come across as sanitizing a page, so you need to be REALLY careful before you start doing that, or you run the risk of coming across as non-transparent. I think the approach they took was the best for the rare amount of time that a crisis like this happens.

    4. They still had other ways to listen, including other social media channels. Also, let’s not forget the telephone. What happened here was a chance for people to troll the RPS page and act like internet tough guys. People who had a legitimate concern could always call the RPS and make an official complaint. The thing is, most of the people who were making these outrageous comments would never consider saying them to another living human being.

    You’re right in that a discussion like this could last for hours in person – there are a lot of nuances to it. But in the end I think that they did a good job. And the thing is – everybody in this industry is always learning, including the RPS. I’m sure the next time something like this happens they will respond in different ways. There is no ‘one right way’ to deal with this, and we all need to ask ‘what can I do better next time?’

  4. I agree completely Ryan. I’m all for people being able to voice an opinion but people take advantage of the Regina Police’s transparency. Some people just shouldn’t be allowed to voice an opinion, some mentioned above, unfortunately they ruin it for the rest of us. We expect @ReginaPolice to be the Jackass Whisperer, but she’s not.

    On Mike’s point on putting more resources to social. They’re the Police Service, a heavily scrutinized public entity. Quite possibly one of the most difficult organizations to “just add more staff” to. They did the best they could with the resources they had.
    I don’t think I could have handled it any better.

    Smart post Ryan.

    Jeph

  5. Jeph/Ryan,

    I love a good social media discussion :)

    “The fact that there are 12k likes on the page tells me that the public wants the RPS to have a page, so IMO getting rid of it is out of the question.”

    I totally agree. My comment regarding closing it down only stands if the activity can’t be resourced properly.

    “I’m sure the social media people would love more budget, but everybody needs to operate with the budgets that they have.”

    The RPS has done an amazing job with the staff that are allocated to this. And, they could continue to run this ‘as is’ without any more investment. But, as you stated, the public is demanding this avenue of communication and that means RPS will need to figure out how to scale this. Scaling will mean ensuring it has the proper leadership, training, HR time, enterprise-level management software (Radian 6 etc), structure, guidelines, policies…etc. Otherwise the problems they are currently facing are going to be just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, what happens if they have 100,000 fans on their page?

    I’m not saying it’s easy to get resources for this activity, and I agree it will likely not happen over night. But, this needs to be given serious evaluation.

    “Deleting select posts can come across as sanitizing a page, so you need to be REALLY careful before you start doing that, or you run the risk of coming across as non-transparent.”

    I totally agree. That is why they need very clear rules on what’s acceptable and what’s not. And then ensure they follow those SOPs to the letter.

    “I think the approach they took was the best for the rare amount of time that a crisis like this happens.”

    This is the first in a long line of issues like this. That is why I’m so insistent on ensuring this gets the proper attention within the organization – or any organization who is trying to scale social media.

    “The thing is, most of the people who were making these outrageous comments would never consider saying them to another living human being.”

    I agree. I’m always perplexed why people behave like this online – especially when they aren’t anonymous. But, restricting free speech is a tricky thing. Those who said illegal things should be prosecuted. Those who said things that were profane should be deleted. And, those in bad taste should be left alone.

    “[sic] And the thing is – everybody in this industry is always learning, including the RPS. I’m sure the next time something like this happens they will respond in different ways. There is no ‘one right way’ to deal with this, and we all need to ask ‘what can I do better next time?’”

    I totally agree. But, again, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Now is the time for RPS and all Sask orgs to start looking at online activity in a different light and ensuring that they are planning and resourcing properly.

    I think this discussion will be read by those leaders and I think we’ve given them some great food for thought.

    Cheers,
    Mike

  6. If the comments were (or could be) closed on the one post, then I’d agree with having a cooling off period. It’s a method of last resort, in my books. I’ve only ever had to ban one user from my blog (for repetitive, ignorant comments numbering in the hundreds over the span of a year). Managing a page with thousands of potential commenters is a bit more complex though, especially after a negative crisis like this dog shooting that has been spread far on social media.

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