PEACE SPEAK: Nine pointers for public sector social media when dealing with online snark or abuse 

Back in the olden days – 2008 – people didn’t shout so much on social media.

Heck, they were just amazed their council or wherever was using it. 

Then people got a bit testy and then during the pandemic they got full on sweary and abusive. I’ve a feeling that when the inflated gas and electric bills land it’ll get even worse. 

Here’s a round-up of some of the points made in the Public Sector Comms Headspace session on dealing with online snark. Thanks everyone who came or contributed.  

Have a set of social media house rules

Yes, this is the ditch I’ll die in. You need something to say what’s acceptable and what’s not. A line in the sand. Then you need to enforce it and tell people why you’ve enforced it. Give them a warning first if you like but don’t tolerate abuse, hate or racist comments. 

If you want a world-beating set of house rules than I commend the Glasgow City Council version. I also recommend you take a look at Wirral Council’s social media house rules too. For North East Ambulance Serrvice NHS Trust’s rules look here.

Don’t delete or hide comments without explanation

Once you’ve got your rules then use them. But explain how they are being used.

People eventually twig that they’ve had their views removed and can get even more testy. What’s more helpful if you explain the action taken and also the reason why. Having seen that done I’ve certainly seen the burst of warm feelings when it is done.

Support your staff because it’s the law

Support your staff. It’s a nice thing to do. They’ll come back to work again next day and anyway it’s the law.

The Health and Safety Executive guidance on this can be found here which covers violence in the workplace. In particular, the advice on verbal abuse which is classed as verbal abuse is particularly useful to quote verbatim. The HSE download on this is here

It’s okay for someone to have an opinion

There’s a difference between comment, criticism and abuse. It’s fine for people to criticise policy. We live in a democracy. I’ve blogged before on how putting reputation management before listening can be damaging. Care providers are now obliged to offer a duty of candour after problems at Mid Staffordshire Hospital were not spotted. This duty may be extended to the entire public sector.  

People not liking a policy is fine. People hurling abuse isn’t. 

It’s always worth challenging

The origin story for many of public sector media was the riots in 2011. An analysis of Twitter at the time showed how some key tweets ebbed and flowed. It also showed the importance of challenging misinformation through a trusted account. The Guardian and LSE produced some landmark research ‘Reading the Riots’ that showed that challenging them in public saw the impact diminish.

Post something contentious when you’re around

Several years ago I remember Aly from Coventry City Council saying that posting about the Pope’s visit at 5pm on a Friday and then going home maybe wasn’t the best idea. When she returned on Monday morning was hundreds of comments playing out a religious flamewar better suited to the 17th century.

Someone made the point in the Headspace session. Don’t post something that you know may be contentious without you being around to keep an eye on the comments. 

It’s always worth challenging over and over 

Every year the urban myth gets repeated that Cadbury’s have banned the word ‘Easter’ from their eggs for fear of offending muslims. They haven’t. But someone challenges this about 350 times a day. If they haven’t, they’d be 35,000 false comments.

People don’t tend to shout at real people

It’s a good tip. A real person – a resident – talking about something doesn’t attract the same attention as a bland corporate announcement. So, include real people in your content. Employes talking about their job also works, too.  

You don’t have to put up with someone swearing at you

Loop back to the social media guidelines. If you’re telling people that you’ll not tolerate racism or being sworn at then after a warning ban them. Just as you’d be banned if up behaved like that in my local Post Office. You deserve to be able to do your job without being the target of abuse. 

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