Public Engagement in the Digital Age: Local Governments Surmounting Internet Negativity

– By Angelica Wedell

The Internet allows for quick and convenient public engagement through social media, forums and comments.  Businesses and local governments alike can use it to spread their brand and reach larger audiences.  But in many ways, the Web is still a wild west – rife with trolls, cyber-security dangers and rampant rumors.

Most Common Sources of Internet Negativity Encountered by Local Governments


Real-world Examples

The truth is that your communications department has no control over what others post about your organization, and everything ever published online lives forever in cyberspace – even if it’s been deleted from the timeline.  Cindy Reents, City Manager of Richland, WA said it best, “Social media is a help because we can get information out.  But it’s not a help when bad information gets out there, because you can’t pull it back.”

When misinformation was printed by the local news media, rumors began to spread and the City of Richland soon had to respond.  First, they sent out a press release containing accurate information.  The local news chose not to publish this corrective article, so Richland used the Internet to act as their own media house.  They published their press release on Facebook, sent a letter from the City Manager available to the public, distributed the accurate message through multiple channels of communication and even invited residents to a special City hall meeting to explain what was true and what wasn’t.

Best practices for digital public engagement are still in the making.  And local governments have different considerations for the Web than do private businesses.  Rather than sell products, local governments use the Internet to communicate and engage with the citizenry to which they are responsible.  And as is the nature of online engagement, the more successfully web-present an organization is, the more they will inevitably encounter negative critics and trolls.

The first gut reaction to criticisms on your social media pages may be to delete them.  But for local government organizations wanting transparency with their residents, this is not the best course of action.  Fred Diehl, Assistant to the Town Administrator of Erie, CO mentioned that blocking users and removing posts is the Town’s last resort.  “Number one is the first amendment and we take that very seriously.  Someone posting on our site would have to go a long way in order for us to delete it,” Diehl said.  Comments deserving deletion appear extremely seldom on Erie’s social media pages.  But the Town does include the public in their Social Media Policy, which explains what kinds of posts they will remove. Communication and marketing coordinator Katie Jenkins explained that the Town does not have the resources for 24/7 Web monitoring, but a profanity filter is used to block content containing obscene language.  Respecting freedom of speech and removing only truly offensive posts is part of what allows the Town of Erie to maintain an overall positive, social Web environment.

Here are four quick tips for dealing with negativity on the Internet:

1. Remember the First Amendment. Local governments like the Town of Erie already adhere to Freedom of Speech on their social media pages when handling negativity. Now, a recent Supreme Court decision has brought attention to municipal social media practices and legality. Take care not to remove comments by citizens simply because you don’t like them. However, you can continue to protect your organization and your residents by moderating your social pages for harmful language, advertisements, suspicious links, etc. Make sure to review your social media policy for First Amendment considerations and ensure it is easy for social commenters and contributors to find.

2. Respond publicly. Now is your chance to debunk Web rumors for the commenter and anyone else thinking the same thing.  Make sure to always be polite, human and accurate.  You might even win over a few fans.

3. Don’t feed the trolls. An attention-starved troll will wander elsewhere for sustenance.  Ignoring them and hiding their posts will usually dissuade them.  Just make sure to determine first if the comment is coming from a “critic” or a “hater,” as defined in the slides: You absolutely should respond to those comments if you are able and enabled by your social media policy.  But if the person is posting something straight-up nonsensical and mean, and there is just not a great response, it may be better not to throw fuel on the trolling fire (encouraging them to continue harassing you).

4. Avoid comment wars. Don’t let Internet debates drag you into an unproductive rabbit hole.  Include a link to more information in the first public reply, and if that is still not enough, move the conversation away from the comments section.

In the end, remember that your organization’s brand and message is not only the responsibility of the few people in your communication’s department.  “You want everyone on staff to be a champion for the City,” said Hollie Logan, communications and marketing manager for The City of Richland.  Broadcasting a unified voice requires support from every department, especially in the Digital Age.

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