SOCIAL ADVICE: Don’t take it personally, but if you manage a social media account you don’t have to make the world smell of fresh paint

Red vintage typewriter with white blank paper sheet

I’ve been troubled for a while with the thorny problem that managing a public sector social media account can be stressful.

Of course, there’s the big things and the little things.

The big things are things like a terror attack. The stabbing in the London area of Streatham at the weekend again showed in an emergency having one trusted source online saying that something has just happened and they’re onto it is so valuable.

It fills the information vacuum that will follow.

Stress around managing a live situation is real and acknowledged. Greater Manchester Police’s account of managing the Arena terrorist attack is a lesson.

But what about the little things? The routine day-to-day low level? It’s not a terror attack so that can’t be stressful, can it? Actually, it can have a far deeper damage.

A public sector person recently told me about the draining effect of managing an account.

“It’s hard and draining being told that you’re crap a dozen times a day. In the end you just start to believe it. And you don’t want to post any good news because they’ll ‘just remind you how crap you are.”

In some way it chimed with an interview with former Labour Party Deputy Leader Tom Watson where he spoke of the brutality of his experience.

It made me think.

‘It’s hard and draining being told that you’re crap a dozen times a day.’

That line stuck with me.

Very often not actually telling YOU you’re crap at all. They’re complaining about something your organisation has done and its so important to remember that and remind each other of this, too.

The lesson of Mid Staffs Hospital

I was born and grew-up in Stafford and lived on a housing estate that was build in the late Sixties. It was an ordinary place to live and was a town of 100,000 people with one non-league football club, a town centre and a hospital. Mention the name of the hospital – Mid Staffs – to anyone from the NHS and they audibly wince.

The Francis report into care at Mid Staffs Hospital sent shockwaves through the NHS in 2013.  An early claim of 1,200 deaths was later withdrawn when no evidence was found to support it but the damage was done and the reputation stuck.

If only the NHS Trust had been receptive to complaints about treatment, I often say, then maybe the worst of the damage could have been avoided.

The lesson of the live Q&A

A friend who has a senior comms person once told me that the council he was at was had run a Twitter Q&A on a hot topic for the first time. All well and good but in his opinion the cabinet had been actively uninterested in anything the residents had to say for the previous five years.

When the Q&A came, there was volleys of angry people raising issues that had been festering for years in some cases.

They first had to plough through these before they got to the subject they wanted to talk about.  Once they had, only then they could earn the right to be listened to.

It’s a lesson that’s stuck with me.

The world doesn’t smell of fresh paint

The old way of running PR was about managing the message to ensure you smelled of a new coat of magnolia but in 2020, this is no longer possible.

It is not YOU they’re fed up with.

If they shout and swear then give them the same short shrift they’d be given if they swore at a frontline customer services person.

If they’re fed-up about policy then thank them and report it back internally and point them to the doors they can knock on if they want to take it further.

Sometimes there’s a reason as to why that decision was made that you can explain to people, like this Sandwell Council interaction.


Sometimes, d’you know what? The people complaining may have a point just as they did at Mid Staffs and your job is to be the canary in the mine for any issues.

Tactical things

Of course, the abstract principle is one thing and reality can be something else.

I always think that making sure others in the team take a turn and share the duties gives you thinking time away. Adopting a human tone and signing off with a name is a well worn way to take the stink out of online rows. People will shout at a logo far more readily than a real person.

Above all, just remember, they’re not shouting at you.

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