Community management and contentious issues

Community management and contentious issues

This post is a part of our community management series – a guide for managing issues in the digital age.

Social media provides endless opportunities for organizations to create brand awareness, promote their key messages, connect with audiences and further their objectives. However, while the benefits do outweigh the risks, no brand is immune to online controversy.

This is especially true for organizations involved in contentious issues. Thanks to social media, backlash from the public can be immediate and overwhelming – which is why having an experienced community manager is so essential.

For an inside look at the world of community management, we spoke with Andrew Stout, a freelance communications professional. With clients in the energy industry, Andrew is no stranger to dealing with the sometimes-hostile side of social media.

community management contentious


Educate yourself before you educate others

When managing the social media accounts of any brand, you should know as much as you can about the organization’s history, operations, values, concerns and objectives – and if there are any areas of contention surrounding the brand, make sure you’ve got a well-rounded understanding of that as well.

When incoming messages and comments start getting ugly, “Do your due diligence on the issue, be prepared in advance and be extra cautious – don’t just reply to something if you know there’s a lot of controversy or sensitivity around the issue,” warns Stout.

Take the time to craft individual responses to each question or message that comes your way. “Never just reply instinctively; don’t have a script you go off just to push out your replies,” Stout says.

Instead of regurgitating information, try adding extra insight and humanity.

It’s also a good idea to do a little research on the people you’re conversing with online. “Check out their profile and find out who they are, what their motivation might be and what their affiliations are,” Stout suggests.


Stay in the loop

In order to effectively manage conversations, you need to monitor everything that’s being said about your brand – not just the messages that are directed towards your social media handles.

“It’s not just the people that are mentioning your Twitter handle – some people aren’t seeking to have interactions with you, but they could still be talking about you. You have to actively seek out those conversations,” says Stout.

This is where community management software comes in handy – tools like Sprout Social give managers the ability to monitor brand keywords.

“Put a little time and effort into creating a search stream that will capture all your brand conversations so you have an idea of the sentiment, the issues and the volume,” Stout suggests.


Respect is key

When contentious issues come up on social media, things can get ugly fast. How can community managers decide what kind of comments are okay, and which ones are inappropriate?

While community guidelines vary from business to business, Stout says that “as long as users are expressing an opinion and doing so with a reasonable level of respect, it’s fine. You just want to keep that level of civility in the dialogue.”

However, some situations do require intervention. “Interject when things get a little heated and remind people to keep the conversation civil,” suggests Stout. “You want to avoid having people make personal attacks on each other. You as the publisher can be the outlet for someone’s frustration – unless they’re crossing really specific lines – but you just don’t want them to take it out on other people who are trying to engage with the topic as well.”

Being prepared can save you time and grief. Publishing your community guidelines, pre-drafting key messages around respectful discourse, and setting up profanity filters (depending on the channel) are all good sanity-saving steps.


Seek out productive conversations

“Conversation has become so polarized that it is really hard when you’re working with issues that are contentious – there’s not a lot of middle ground where you can have conversations any more,” observes Stout. “That is why brands are getting on social media in the first place – they want to have conversations.”

While Stout says there used to be more room for dialogue in the early days of social media, nowadays it’s more like “a shouting match of strong, inaccurate opinions from both sides of the issue. With any issue, there are people on either end of the spectrum who aren’t going to be moved.”

With any given issue, extremists aren’t opened to persuasion. Instead, Stout says, “You want to be focused on conversations that are moving toward the middle of that spectrum – that’s your opportunity to create a dialogue and educate.”

Responding to inbound messages, especially from detractors, can also have some surprising reputational benefits if done well. There are a lot of people who may be reading the comments but aren’t necessarily jumping into the fray. By providing additional context or correcting misinformation, that silent majority has the opportunity to see your organization as transparent and open to other perspectives, even if the detractors don’t.

community management social media

Ads also require community management

Oftentimes, brands don’t consider the community management aspect of running social media ad campaigns. In Stout’s experience, ads are actually more likely to receive comments than organic posts.

“You know you’ll get feedback when you do ads because no matter what, some people will be offended by having real estate taken up on their timeline by content they didn’t choose to have there. You’re imposing on their space; they didn’t reach out to you.”

In these situations, there isn’t always a productive solution. “Sometimes I find it most effective to just tell those users how to hide the ads,” Stout advises. “It seems a little counterintuitive but you already know you’re not going to win that person over. If you help them, at least they can come away with a positive impression of their interaction with you.”


Keep an eye on your metrics for extra insight

If you really want to understand what makes your audience tick, you’re going to have to crunch some numbers. This is where social media reports, metrics and analytics come in.

Stout says that “by monitoring conversations over different periods of time – daily, monthly, quarterly – you can get an understanding of your baseline, and then can see when you’ve had a really peak month. You start to see trends of what people are responding to and you can anticipate those things in advance. Putting together that broader awareness of what happens on social media around your brand is important.”

If you are using a social media management platform like Sprout Social, start tagging your inbound messages by sentiment. This will allow you to analyze the overall tone of the conversation and identify how the sentiment is changing over time.


For many B2Bs, education is the ultimate goal

“For any company that’s not selling something but is trying to accomplish something – education, awareness, campaigning – you’re really just trying to reach the group of people in the middle of the spectrum and share your side of the story,” says Stout.

While it often seems that social media posts go viral overnight, Stout believes that consistency and patience is key. Progress takes time, but “seeing public opinion change and being able to direct your own narrative is the rewarding part of community management. One little positive interaction slowly snowballs; you build your social capital over time.”

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