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How to Handle Negative Social Media Comments

By Kristy Dalton

If your city has social media profiles, you’ve probably encountered your fair share of negative comments. There is a lot of magic that comes out of open and transparent communication with the public on social media but dealing with the inevitable negativity is never easy.

A person stressed in front of a giant phone with meany emojis.Social media comments may be similar to feedback you’d hear during city meetings, but on social media, it’s much more convenient for people to offer their opinion. Your net is also wider, potentially pulling in comments from all over the country, not just your own jurisdiction.

Government communicators encounter many different types of negative replies on social media. While some are complaints — like a complaint about customer service or a situation the commenter has encountered — other comments can be expressions of disagreement or dissatisfaction with something your city is doing, or simply unhappiness about anything related to your city.

How you respond to negative comments says a lot about your city and understanding best practices for responding can lighten your stress. Trained government social media professionals typically consider the following factors to effectively manage negative comments.

Should you respond?

Start here: When you receive a negative comment, ask yourself, ‘Should we respond?’ There are times to respond to negative comments, and there are times not to.

“This city is awful, and its officials have no brains!” “You’re the worst and your policies are ridiculous!” Comments like this that are purely argumentative and combative, don’t have a clear question, are irrelevant to the post topic, or that violate the platform’s terms of service may not warrant a response from your city’s account.

Members of the public have a right to speak their mind, and it’s not your job to remove opposing views. However, closely monitor the conversation and step in if these comments communicate misinformation that might confuse other people.

Having established rules of engagement and internal customer service policies will help guide these decisions. Remember, negativity alone is not a reason to remove comments and may be considered a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Always consult with your leadership and city attorney when creating your policies, and if there’s ever a comment that raises concerns, ask your city attorney about it.

Responding to complaints

Does the commenter have a complaint about a service that your city provides (or doesn’t provide)? When someone is expressing a concern, the city should respond.

Think of this type of negative comment — something like, “The streetlight on this corner is still messed up!” — as a customer service opportunity to acknowledge the person’s complaint. Try to help resolve their problem.

Respond by recognizing their complaint, thanking them for bringing this to your attention (if appropriate), and giving advice that helps solve their issue. If your city isn’t the right entity, provide contact information for the best place to direct their complaint to.

Does this comment have incorrect information? While not all comments deserve responses, comments that have bad information should be addressed when posted on your city’s page. Respond respectfully and clarify the information or direct the commenter to an official webpage with the correct information.

Use it as an opportunity

When responding to any negative comment, be transparent, respond respectfully, and use it as an opportunity to showcase your city’s professionalism to the commenter and others.

By being open to criticism and responding to frustrations as an opportunity to humanize your city, many times, you’ll satisfy the commenter because they know they have at least been heard, even if their issue was not resolved. If you need to take it a step further, invite them to contact you privately with more details. Even if they don’t take you up on the offer, they might appreciate that you extended the invitation.

Additional steps

Work internally to channel important messages to the right people. When you notice an uptick in negativity related to a particular service or program, don’t sit on the information. As a social media professional, you receive feedback from the public, and you have an obligation to ensure that public sentiment gets to the powers that be.

As your city’s communicator, also remember to take care of yourself. Handling negative comments isn’t an easy task, but try to remember, these comments aren’t about you and aren’t even necessarily about your city. Before responding, take a step back first to be able to respond rationally, accurately, and with compassion.

Kristy Dalton is the founder and CEO of Government Social Media LLC.