Lessons Learned: Handling an Angry Facebook Comment

Post by: Kim Stephens

Photo by: InernetMonk.com

I recently wrote a post titled “What happens when people make insensitive comments on your Facebook Page?” This post was about an angry/rude/obnoxious (insert descriptor here) person who made some ugly comments on the Barry Point Oregon Fire Facebook page this summer. The page, as well as other social media sites including a blog, a Twitter account, and a Google+ profile, was set up by the National Incident Management Organization (NIMO) with the aid of a Volunteer Operations Support Team (VOST) after the NIMO team assumed command of the  fire on August 13, 2012.

The objective of using social networking was to provide information to local residents on numerous platforms and to foster engagement. Although the Incident Information System website called Inciweb was in place with up-to-date content, Inciweb does not have a mechanism  to receive feedback from the community. Furthermore, the site is a little “crashy” as the warning implies: “Due to high demand this Web site may become unresponsive.”

Within 3 days of putting up the Facebook page, they got a little more engagement than they bargained for. So much so, in fact, that it led to not only my blog post about the incendiary comments, but a “lessons learned” report. You can download that paper written by Kris Eriksen, lead PIO, here: Barry Point SM Lessons learned.

The Story

What happened, in sum, was one woman decided to use the Facebook page to rant against the Forest Service  by posting the comment below. This comment was her idea of inserting a caption to a picture of the Incident Commander addressing people with the aid of a  megaphone at a shift change.

Hi Hater

Hi Hater (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can hear it now….. “THIS IS BIG DOLLARS MEN AND WOMEN” Your paychecks depend on this fire burning up as much as possible. The longer we can Let’er burn the bigger ALL of our pockets get! So be careful out there, eat a good lunch, be sure you all take your government mandated breaks… Every 15mins whether you need it or not! Ooh and don’t forget hacky sac play offs are tonite following directly after dinner, so be sure to practice on that while your standing around watching the fire today!

The reaction from the public was swift and in full support of the Forest Service and the firefighters. Other community members essentially ended up “shouting down” the woman and all of her subsequent comments: the quote above was just her first foray. As one of the PIOs is quoted as saying: “I don’t think we have to do anything. These people are totally trashing her!”

Keeping it Cool

What is interesting to me, however, is not what was happening on the page, but what was happening behind the scenes. By reading through the stream of comments it seems as if the PIOs were playing it completely cool–fully aware that the community would find her comments repulsive, or at least ill-informed, and come to their defense. But what the lessons-learned document, as well as my converstations with Ms. Eriksen, demonstrates is that a much more complicated story was unfolding, one full of hand-wringing.

Ms. Eriksen reflects:

It’s funny, but in the heat of the moment it didn’t seem as simple as it does looking back!!  I remember when the first comment appeared from Theresa and Brie Magee, another PIO, read it to me.  We all sort of said “Wow, that was nasty.” and we talked about answering, but didn’t. Many more comments came.”

In a situation such as this, the nature reaction is to defend yourself–“Hey-that’s not true!” As Ms Eriksen states:

“You want to respond.  You worry about where it will go and what damage letting it go might do.  Then there is the damage from stamping it out.  So you try to juggle it, knowing that the decision will have a long-term effect and is important, and realizing you only have one shot to get it right.”

But on a public page, administrators should understand that by arguing with someone they can diminish their own stature and add legitimacy to the person commenting. Kris says in the report

 “After one, I don’t remember which one, but it was factually wrong about how we fight fire, so I thought it was an opportunity to at least answer and say something, so I drafted a sort of generic answer about how we manage large fires and worked in a few things that referred to her earlier comments but didn’t address her directly, but still, we didn’t send it. We were still thinking about it. Some of the PIO’s were getting a bit worried about where this would go, were unhappy that it was happening and thought we should respond.” 

Mr. Eriksen writes that they didn’t have to talk about how they fought fires because citizens posted correct information. She also states that they determined that the woman shouldn’t be blocked  or her comments deleted because she never  violated the policy. But what they did want to do was let everyone visiting the page know they were watching what was happening and that they would draw act if things got out of hand (e.g. threatening comments were posted). This is why they decided to prominently re-post the comment policy. They also knew that these comments weren’t the first thing people saw when they visited the page–on Facebook,  comments are not featured prominently.

3 Great Lessons from a Public Relations Professional

Upon review of this case, a public relations expert sent Ms. Eriksen 3 reasons why ignoring the comments and leaving them on the page was the right thing to do:

“If you were to have deleted the post, you would have inflamed the situation by:

  1. Enforcing what negative poster said in her initial post and reiterated in several subsequent posts — that the system was at fault as was less than responsive;
  2. Encouraging her to keep posting thereby putting you in a situation of worrying more about her posts and whether to delete them again and again versus worrying about the things on which you should be focused;
  3. Deterring your defenders from posting all of that great information about the tasks and issues at hand.”

One thing the public relations expert didn’t relay is that deleting comments on a page representing a public agency–especially if they are just critical of the organization versus racist or threatening, could be considered a violation of the person’s first amendment rights and they might sue you…great.

A Happy Ending

I love Ms. Ericksen’s summation:

“In the end, I think the whole exchange was actually beneficial. I think the community came together over her comments and once the positive thank you’s started flowing, it’s was all really good stuff.  I think we reached a tipping point – on the page at least, where it became positive for us and the firefighter, despite the continued growth of the fire. We learned a lot about what could happen and I got my belief reaffirmed that the community would balance things out.  I think it will be a very powerful tool for agency leaders and others who hesitate because they worry about exchanges like this.

…There is additional pressure from knowing this will affect the future relationship between the agency you’ve been hired to work for and their community;  compounded by the fact that they didn’t ask for the social media to be done –  we just did it.  And they would likely (if it went badly) blame it on SM and our team, potentially harming every team’s ability to ever engage with social media again, anywhere.  The repercussions were enormous.  That load felt a bit heavy.”

5 responses to “Lessons Learned: Handling an Angry Facebook Comment

  1. So would you summarise this lesson as advocating a policy of
    “Don’t feed the trolls” ..?

  2. Kim-Thanks for posting on this important topic. I believe this is something all crisis managers need to learn–how to triage social media comments. Community policing is a huge advocate and if we build our social media presence correctly to begin with, we’ll have a great group of core advocates. Keep the case studies coming!

  3. Chris, thanks for the comment. I agree, case studies really are the best way to understand not only what others are doing but how best to handle situations you are likely to encounter. I’m glad you like what I’m trying to accomplish here!

    And yes Robin, I love that lesson summary. Hilarious!

  4. I agree with the don’t feed the trolls message. but I’m wondering how effective this would have worked if the organistation was other than a firefighting service? Firefighters are generally highly regarded by the public at large and quite rightly so. And there are always people who are willing to shout down those that post such ugly comments about the fire service. However if you were in a private organistaion or even a council there would not be the vocal support for them and the ugly comments would not shouted down in such a way. Just look at local papers articles on council activities and I bet you’ll you’ll find much more anti- than pro- comments. Therefore there wouldn’t be such a happy ending as there is in this case?

  5. Pingback: How to deal with negative comments and trolls : Social Media for Good by @timolue

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