How to Handle Online Criticism / Conflict
How a nonprofit organization, government office or community
initiative handles online criticism and conflict speaks volumes about
that organization or initiative, for weeks, months, and maybe even years
to come. It can even cause discord offline, among volunteers and
There is no way to avoid criticism, but there are ways to address criticism that can actually help an organization to be perceived as even more trustworthy and worth supporting. An organization MUST be able to honestly and openly deal with online criticism, particularly from supporters and participants. Otherwise, the organization puts itself in a position to lose the trust of supporters and clients, and even generate negative publicity -- and, once lost, trust and credibility can be extremely difficult to win back.
Before staff members panic at the idea of supporters not being so supportive, or the organization removes its online forum and profiles altogether, withdraws its participation from someone else's forum, or gets defensive, remember: being perceived as allowing such discussions reflects very positively on an organization. By contrast, the aforementioned alternative responses will be perceived as negative, and will probably do more to hurt the organization's reputation and credibility than help it.
Is the critic actually doing you a favor by offering you feedback that may not have been discovered otherwise, when damage was done to your organization's reputation and credibility? Again, acknowledging a real problem is a powerful way to turn a critic into a supporter.
If the complaint is legitimate -- for instance, that the organization's past annual reports aren't on the organization's web site, get them up ASAP, and offer an apology for not having done so earlier. Don't try to defend or excuse your original decision not to. Take the lumps with grace and honesty.
Instead, take responsibility. If the critic is pointing out something your organization should have done, but didn't, for whatever reason, accept the criticism. Consider offering a straightforward and sincere apology, and details on how the problem will be addressed.
If you have already worked to create trust with those with those whom you interact online, long before criticisms surface, through transparent and honest information in past communications, you are going to have a much better time dealing with online criticism; readers will already trust you, and be ready to give you the benefit of the doubt.
When reading an online complaint, consider: is the complaint an indication of a greater problem? Could there be a credibility gap among some supporters that could spread to others if not addressed? Could online criticism be an indication of a problem or perception among supporters you were not previously aware of? It might be worth brainstorming with staff and supporters onsite, in a special meeting, to find out if there is something more to criticisms that might initially meet the eye... or the heart.
A blog at CNET by Dana Blankenhorn on "How open should your open source business strategy be" is something anyone working in public relations/press relations should read, including nonprofit organizations. Blankenhorn uses an example of one CEO at an open source business who blogs openly and thoughtfully about criticisms of his company and himself. Blankenhorn notes that "success in open source also requires transparency in other areas, even when it comes to development strategy, and a willingness to acknowledge what others may see as mistakes in that strategy. She says, "This goes beyond merely engaging with your community, but treating critics as adults rather than as adversaries, and questions as opportunities to provide insight... a willingness to listen and even change your mind in response to criticism." As I wrote in my own blog, agreeing with hers, "Isn't the same true for nonprofit organizations? Isn't it necessary, because of the nature of nonprofit organizations, that they must be transparent about their program development strategies and activities, and be willing to acknowledge what others may see as mistakes in that strategy, in a thoughtful and open way, in order to distinguish themselves from other sectors and to garner community investment?"
Can online complaints go too far? Certainly, and your organization is entirely inline to prohibit certain topics from discussion its own forums, such as information about clients, internal documents, and other confidential information, or to censor such information. You would also be within your rights to censor foul language, and to ban someone from your own forum for using such. Again, if you ban someone, the group needs to know who and why.
When does someone move from being an angry person with legitimate criticism to being a "troll" -- a person who is arguing for the sole purpose of derailing conversations and creating mistrust? When that person consistently strays from facts, makes insulting personal comments, posts the same information over and over again, and posts messages obviously designed to annoy and antagonize other members and engage them in a fruitless confrontation. But someone who is disgruntled, suspicious and questioning is NOT automatically a troll -- be careful in dismissing someone as such, to avoid being seen as just trying to shut down legitimate, although uncomfortable, conversation.
It's fine to remind users of the forum rules, and what topics are off-limits. It's also a good idea for a staff member to occasionally enter the conversation, to let participants know that staff are aware of what's being discussed, that you appreciate the feedback, and what is happening as a result of the feedback. But don't shut down a negative conversation on your online discussion group just because it's negative. If you feel that an ongoing debate is stifling discussion of other topics, then consider creating a forum specifically for the debate, and asking users to move the debate to this specially-created forum for such.
What about when the criticisms are happening on someone else's forum, web site or blog? You can't control what other people post on their own online site or blog or profile on an online social networking site such as FaceBook or MySpace, unless they violate the law. If the site allows online discussion or has a comments board, you should engage in any of the aforementioned activities on this other person's site, and invite the other forum's participants to write you directly for further information/clarification. If the site does not have a discussion forum or comments board, you should write directly to the author with your information/clarification. You may also consider posting information on your own online forum in response, if you feel that the criticisms could cause concerns among supporters.
How can you find out if online criticism is happening outside of your own online fora? Ask your volunteers to be on the lookout for postings about your organization on the online groups, blogs and social networking sites they frequent -- encourage them to pass on such information so your organization can be more in tune with public opinion, NOT so you can shut down criticism. Also, go to Google or any other online directory system and search for your organization's name, or the name of your organization's executive director. You may find criticism or praise from a volunteer, donor, or client about your organization that you will want to address. You should also check your organization's name on Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia that is staffed by online volunteers. If your organization is listed, is the listing accurate and complete? Is there a subject listing that you feel should link to your organization's web site? It's easy to edit listings yourself on the service, which are then verified by wikipedia volunteers.
Online criticism is not always a bad thing
A short case study: the Henderson Humane Society
In March 2005, the local government of Henderson County, Kentucky (my hometown), received information from a staff person at the Henderson Humane Society, which operates the animal shelter there. This information documented horrific conditions at the shelter and gross mismanagement. Unfortunately, not much changed, so the staff person then contacted the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which then launched an online campaign in the Fall of 2005, and a local television station, which produced a story about the inhumane conditions at the shelter. It was the online criticism and online activism, as well as the resulting local press coverage and further public outrage, that at last prompted radical changes at the shelter, and a vastly-improved organization. In April 2006, the local newspaper ran a glowing story about the changes at the shelter. How the organization handled its initial criticism -- by ignoring it -- lead to even more intense and public criticism, including online with a major national advocacy organization, and a great deal of public mistrust and loss of credibility. How it handled the resulting more intense criticism, by accepting it fully, by firing some staff members, by changing leadership and by addressing complaints, has lead to a very different, and much better, organization that's on its way to restoring its credibility.
Another short case study: a Chicago nonprofit asked for feedback online about its YouTube video - was the response criticism, or free consulting?! The comments may have bruised someone's ego, but the criticisms were all legit, and the comments offered solid, credible advice for improving the online video campaign.
But what about an organized, pervasive online effort to discredit your nonprofit organization, one that results in individuals, knowingly or naively, spreading falsehoods, about your organization via various online fora? A good example of this is the seemingly-grassroots campaign to discredit the UN Population Fund by a variety of right-wing activists. I've written to UNFPA directly to see if they will share their strategies to counter such efforts, and posted to various online fora to gather ideas from other organizations -- I'll update this page as soon as I can pull together some concrete good examples (can't seem to get anyone's attention at UNFPA...).
Support Your Local Online Discussion Manager!
When you, the Executive Director or Marketing Manager or Program
Director, see your online discussion manager facilitating an online
debate about something your organization is or isn't doing, the
temptation may be for you, the senior person, to jump in and start
posting. That may or may not be a good idea. It's a good idea if there
is something you need to clarify that you can say better than your
online discussion manager, particularly if it might relieve pressure on
that person and allow him or her to move the discussion forward. It's
also a good idea if you see the manager under fire - it can be
wonderfully motivating for an online community manager that is bruised
from an online virtual debate to see your public support for him or her,
and it can help for discussion group members see your faith in that
person. However, it's a bad idea if you are seen as "taking over;" your
posting to the discussion can disempower your online discussion manager,
reducing his or her importance to the community. Why should the
community look to that person as their liaison with the organization
online, when you've made it clear that YOU are higher up and in-charge,
and you took over the discussion? If you think there is a different way
to handle an online situation than your online discussion manager is
doing, talk with that person FIRST, and if at all possible, have the
discussion manager continue to be the lead in facilitating the
discussion. If you must post something, be sure to add verbiage that
shows you still have faith and trust in your online discussion manager,
and that you fully support that person.
On a related note, I have also been gathering and sharing examples for several years now of how folklore, rumors, urban myths and misinformation campaigns interfere with development and aid/relief efforts, as well as recommendations on preventing or responding to such.
Also see the February 2008 Beth Kanter blog entry, "Transparency, Social Media, and Dealing with Criticism"; the second case she relates, regarding Seagulls Global Internship International and its new logo, as well as and the blog comments, are an excellent example of what online criticism can look like among supporters and ways to handle such (and please note that I used the example at the start of this page regarding controversy over a new logo back in 2006; that's how common such controversies are!).
And view as well "Apology's Sorry State", by Workforce Management editor John Hollon. "Even at that point, when they finally, grudgingly admitted their transgression, the 'apology' I received was terribly shallow and totally insincere. I came away from the incident wondering how the company manages to keep any customers at all given such a ham-handed business philosophy. Who wants to deal with an organization that behaves like that?... a timely, personal and sincere apology could have turned me around and made me feel really positive toward the organization. Instead, I was left with the strong impression that it was a shoddy operation with bad business practices an organization that would do the right thing only if somebody forced it to."
Also see this this profile of Captain David Faggard, Chief of Emerging Technology, US Air Force, who says that he wants to foster an environment in which all enlisted personnel are equipped to engage in online discussions about the US Air Force -- that's a 330,000-member communications team. Have a look at this Air Force Web Posting Response Assessment flow chart in PDF and think about how you can adapt it for your own organization.
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