Crisis in the Comments

Handling negative social media in a positive way

By Heather Palacios, Melissa Hite Last Updated: May 16, 2022

Over the past few years, the conversation around public education has become more negative than ever before. Whether it’s about mask policies, curriculum concerns, or banned books, it seems there’s always someone waiting to criticize your schools. And as you probably know, negativity rears its ugly head on social media more than just about anywhere else.

Unfortunately, negative comments and replies are pretty much unavoidable these days. But while you can’t stop negative comments from happening, you can’t afford to ignore them, either. They can massively impact your brand.

According to a survey by Sprout Social, 60% of people are unlikely to purchase from a brand if it has received negative social media comments. In general, people trust other consumers, and when we see complaints about a brand online, it damages our trust in that brand. It’s the same for your district. Prospective families and staff are on the lookout for other people’s perceptions of and experiences with your schools. They notice your responses to comments, or lack thereof. Oftentimes, they form opinions about your district based on the way you engage with your audience—particularly dissatisfied customers.

That’s why it’s crucial to deal with your negative comments in a way that shows your community—and your commenters—that you care. Luckily, we’ve got some effective tips for keeping your social media profiles positive and productive.

Ignore the trolls.

There’s a big difference between a community member with a legitimate concern and someone who just wants to cause trouble. While genuine complaints deserve your respect and attention, trolls do not.

How do you tell them apart? It’s actually pretty simple. If your commenter’s account was just created or has a blank profile picture, that’s a huge red flag. So is an account without any posts of its own—only comments or replies to other pages. These are basically “burner” profiles, created by people who want to attack other pages with a degree of anonymity.

But whether they’re anonymous or not, the strongest indicator that you’re dealing with a troll is the substance of their posts. While an offended community member may be frustrated, trolls are hateful. Their comments are inflammatory, exaggerated, and often off-topic. They may even lob personal attacks at teachers or other staff members. Worst of all, they return to your comments or replies again and again, pushing the same agenda no matter what you’re posting about.

At the end of the day, trolls are out for attention—so your best course of action is to ignore them completely. If their comments are vulgar or outright abusive, block them. You’ll never win this group over, so there’s no sense in wasting your energy trying.

Respond quickly.

Unless you’re dealing with obvious trolls, you should always respond to negative comments. Have you ever voiced a concern to someone face-to-face and been ignored? It doesn’t feel good. The same is true online. A Sprout Social survey found that when people complain on social media and don’t receive a response in return, 40% will reach out through another channel. Additionally, 35% will never buy from the brand again.

It’s also important to respond in a timely fashion. This shows your commenters that you care about them and that their concerns are a priority for the district. What constitutes “timely”? Well, data from Hubspot suggests that on both Facebook and Twitter, consumers expect a response within 30 minutes.

That may not be a realistic timeframe for an understaffed communications team, and that’s okay. Even in the private sector, only 50% of companies meet that expectation on either platform. But suffice it to say that checking your social media and responding once or twice a week isn’t enough. As much as possible, keep a close eye on your comments and answer them as quickly as you can.

Keep it personal and authentic.

Have you ever noticed yourself acting differently online than you would in person? You might overshare a bit in your Facebook statuses, for instance, or be a bit quicker to complain about a negative experience. Either way, it’s fairly common to act differently on social media than we would in real life. There’s actually a name for this psychological phenomenon: the online disinhibition effect.

So why does this happen? While a variety of factors combine to make our brains react this way, a major one is invisibility. From behind a screen, we can’t see others and they can’t see us. This makes it easier to forget we’re talking to real people on the internet—which, in turn, makes it easier to be mean. That’s a great reason to make your replies to negative comments personal and authentic. If you constantly remind your audience that they’re talking to an actual human being, they’re more likely to react with kindness and understanding.

Keeping a response personal is fairly simple, and it starts with adopting a tone of intentional informality—replying in a casual voice. If you’re used to being formal, this may feel unnatural or even unprofessional, but don’t worry. By taking a more conversational tone, you’re infusing your replies with authenticity—and reminding your commenter that there’s a real person behind your social media profile.

As you craft your response, you’ll want to refer to your commenter by name—but that’s only the beginning. Take personalization a step further by signing your reply with your own name. Once again, this reminds your audience that there’s a real person behind the screen and makes it harder for them to be unkind.

Finally, make sure you’re not using the same canned response to every negative comment. If your commenters think you’re copying and pasting your replies, you’ll come across as insincere and impersonal—which is the last thing you want. Go back and read your five most recent responses. If they sound the same, or you sense a pattern in your replies, you need to add more personalization.

Make the conversation private.

If you’re dealing with a serious complaint, suggest moving the conversation to a private space, whether that’s direct messages or your real-life office. Private conversations give you more control and keep the situation from escalating in the comments section.

Before you go, though, it’s important to leave a public reply. This lets the rest of your community know you’re not ignoring your negative commenter. Not sure what to say? Here are a few guidelines:

Address the commenter by their first name and thank them for their feedback.

Acknowledge the commenter’s frustration and apologize if appropriate.

Give them your school email address or ask them to send a direct message to the district’s Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

End on a positive note, like “Thank you!” and sign your name.

While it’s fine to share your own contact information, you should never ask for a commenter’s phone number, email, or personal information on a public social media platform. And remember: These replies should be personal. Don’t just copy and paste a response.

Accentuate the positive.

Negative social media comments can be uncomfortable to deal with, but viewed from the right angle, they’re also opportunities. If the district has handled something poorly, you have a chance to apologize and make it right. If there’s confusion surrounding an issue, you can set the record straight.

Handling these situations may even turn detractors into advocates for your schools. According to that same Sprout Social survey, nearly half of people said that if they received a thoughtful reply to their initial callout, they’d post about that positive experience on social media later. About 37% would tell their friends about it.

Unfortunately, your schools will always have critics—but you have the power to shift the social media narrative. By responding with promptness, kindness, and authenticity, you can help keep your comments section a positive place to be.

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