The Negative Side of Social Media: What to Expect

Sept. 11, 2014
When it comes to the fear of negative feedback from the social media realm, it's not as daunting as people fear.

When it comes to dealing with negative comments or the fear of negative comments, it seems that it’s not nearly as daunting as people imagine. And as TransLink Online Communications Advisor Jhenifer Pabillano points out, “Those conversations already exist whether you’re participating in them or not. Being a part of social media helps you be a part of that conversation and maybe steer the direction that might be positive for your organization.

“But at this point now, all you have is the negative things that people are saying that you don’t get to participate in, so for some people it might be a missed opportunity.”

“I think the challenge with negative comments is more the internal fear of them,” says Jaime Vogt, Sound Transit communications specialist. “I think after all this much worry about negative comments it’s been a real pleasant surprise at how few there are.”

Pabillano shares a similar sentiment. “There was no overwhelming barrage of really angry people who have showed up and made life misery. It really hasn’t happened that way.”

“The most important thing to remember is first of all, don’t panic. It’s not as scary as it seems,” says Vogt. “And I think they’ll find they’ll get much more positive outlook then they will a negative outlook. “

“I think agencies need to develop a bit of a thicker skin on these things,” says Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) Website Manager Tim Moore. “Just because they’re not being said in a public place, doesn’t mean they’re not being said and it doesn’t mean they’re not things that the agency shouldn’t address.

“I think you gain a great deal of equity when you talk with your customers and address these negative things, because otherwise you’re just Pollyana-ish, just positive things in a positive context and everybody knows that that’s not the way things really are.”

This past year, TriMet created a Blog Response Team to monitor local blogs and to respond with useful, thoughtful, accurate information after discovering misrepresented information and to get involved in the conversation. “This team is made up of communications professionals within the agency who, as content experts, can respond in a timely manner when bloggers present important information about our agency incorrectly or inadequately,” TriMet Director of Marketing Drew Blevins says.

Of course at times the negative comments will come or you will have negative news you will have to communicate.

“We try to stay on message and address real issues,” Blevins says. He also says they have a response “triage” chart that is used by the U.S. Air Force and Ohio State Medical Centers to help them manage.

Samantha Cross, business development director for Indianapolis Public Transportation Corp. (IndyGo) says their process is to ask for those that have a specific comment or complaint that they go through either the website or the call center to lodge that complaint. “We don’t want this to necessarily be, ‘This bus driver was mean to me today.’ There’s a way for us to handle that.”

For someone that has a specific problem, Cross says they urge the person to go to the customer call center or website and lodge a formal complaint so there can be appropriate follow up. “If it keeps up, there’s just general negativity, we’ll try to answer it on Facebook. If it keeps going, we go offline and we contact that person.”

She explains there was someone on Twitter that used excessive inappropriate language. “He was frustrated and he had every right to be frustrated, just the way he was handling it wasn’t great.”

He was invited in to come and talk about his complaints. “That assured him that he is being heard and that he needs to continue to go through the proper channels to launch his complaints or comments or we’ll never fix his concerns.”

She adds, “We didn’t want to block him; we didn’t want to get into that.” IndyGo hasn’t blocked anyone and continues to contact those necessary directly and to deal with them one on one. “At that point they’re pretty desperate to be heard and we want to give that to them, but we don’t want to have a public exchange over Facebook or Twitter. We won’t go back and forth 10 times with somebody.”

BART Senior Web Producer Melissa Jordan says that having been engaged with riders early and having lines of communication open helps to be humanized and people to have trust that it’s not just a spin control sort-of-thing.

At the time of writing this, BART was dealing with a major service delay event in the system. “As we worked it to communicate through all our channels — not just social but email channels, on the website and through our SMS texting — as we worked to communicate this, we passed the 10,000 threshold of our Twitter followers,” says Jordan. “Even in times when you’re communicating negative information or information that’s not favorable for customers, they are seeing value in the channel and it just seems like a bit of an ironic way to pass 10,000.”

From Complainer to Champion

BART further explains that the negative commentators can turn into advocates for the system. One example it’s seen this is with the issue of 24-hour service, to which it has a place on the website where it explains the reasons why there isn’t 24-hour service available.

As Moore is explaining how customers create a network of people who inform their friends, Jordan pulls up a recent Facebook post where someone was asking again for 24-hour service. She says one of the recent comments was “24-hour service is impossible with only two tracks, they have to do maintenance.

“So just as he [Moore] says, customers are carrying the message for us and it has a little more credibility when it’s coming from non people-like-us.”

“I hate to say it, we’re borrowing influence from our customers and they can carry our message for us and it is so much more valuable,” says Moore.

Jordan adds, “And they’re real people; it’s authentic.”

“Our experience has been that even people who are critical, sometimes turn into an advocate or at least they’ll say they appreciated getting the answer or having their concerns listened to,” says Moore. “So being there, the negative feelings are going to be happening anyways. If you’re out there dealing with them and acknowledging them from your customers, you’re better off than just a wall of silence.”

Moving Past the Fear

“I think we experienced what other transit agencies experienced, too much of the hesitancy comes from the legal side, afraid of things like public disclosure and how you’re going to retain comments and do they become official public comment when somebody Tweets,” says Tim Healy, Sound Transit marketing & creative services manager.

He stresses, “Jaime is very confident about it and understanding it and that policy, so there’s a level of confidence in that she understands it, but they don’t have to.” Another way to raise the agency’s comfort level, Vogt says, is that up front on the platform, being clear about what the conversation means. “We try to do that on the front pages of our Facebook and Twitter pages, plus what level of service this interaction means.

“It’s not official public comment, that it’s a conversation and that goes into directing them to the right channels when they do want to say things more officially.”

TriMet’s Blevins says, “The old paradigm of just pushing information out is no longer acceptable to customers. They want, and expect, bilateral communication. They want to have a voice. They want to be heard.”