Social Media Community Management Basics: Leave Your Opinions at Home

Social Media Community Management Basics: Leave Your Opinions at Home

By: Shelly Kramer
May 8, 2014

social media community management basicI happened upon a random conversation on Facebook this morning that made me realize that there’s still much for brands and agencies to learn about social media community management.

The formula for great community management is quite simple. Find someone with a great personality, who loves people, and who understands the goals and objectives of the organization. They must be comfortable living life “out there” on a limb, where what they do and say can be seen, and critiqued, by a peanut gallery that includes senior management, co-workers, customers, prospects, competitors, brand advocates, people who hate your brand, and everyone else on the planet. Oh, and of course, the right person must be smart, able to think on the fly, and be calm and rational in times of great stress.

Totally sounds like a job anyone would want, right?

Community management is the personification of the trenches. It’s a front-line job. It is probably one of the most difficult jobs in the corporate communications realm, but it’s all too easy for senior managers to overlook that tiny detail. All too often, the people we put into these jobs are junior-level people without much experience – and certainly without much experience in the trenches.

Community management is great when everyone is happy, the sun is shining, birds are singing and roses are blooming. But when something bad happens – and it will – the job out in front is hard. It’s also scary as heck to have that kind of responsibility.  There have been times when even I’ve been overwhelmed and I’m a senior level marketer and someone very adept at both corporate comms and social media. If it’s possible to overwhelm me, imagine what a junior person must feel like in these situations.

The McDonald’s Twitter Account Fail

The other day, someone who does community management for the McDonald’s corporate Twitter account pulled a bonehead move. She shared something that was probably meant for her personal account, but instead it was tweeted from the corporate account. What she shared wasn’t very nice, definitely snarky and most assuredly rude. Even worse, she then made the mistake of suggesting—from the brand’s corporate account no less—that someone she had an issue with should “go parent your kids.” Not really the kind of messaging appropriate for any brand’s account. Ever.

Of course, the person she tweeted this to already had issues with the brand (which isn’t the topic here), and was outraged by the audacity of this kind of communication coming from McDonald’s. I think that if we are honest, any one of us might be equally as outraged. And she did what any pissed off, connected person would do: she screen captured the exchange and shared it,  and it was then picked up by her equally outraged friends. All pretty normal, right?

mcd shot image 1

To her credit, the person manning the McDonald’s account immediately admitted her mistake and took full responsibility for the action. The problem is that that doesn’t make it go away. That one little misstep could be a big deal: and in many instances a mistake not only has the potential to damage a professional reputation of the community manager, it can also have an impact on the reputation of the brand. “This stuff is not a big deal and it always blows over?” — is that what you’re thinking? In the big scheme of things, there are definitely worse things that could happen – online and off. But in many instances, situations like this are a very big deal for everyone involved.

Why Opinions Have No Place in Community Management

My dad likes to say that “Opinions are like a-holes, everybody’s got one” – which is, well, totally true. But the reality is that, when it comes to community management, personal opinions don’t belong. Ever. Unless a brand hires you because of your outrageousness and out-there opinions — that’s a different story altogether.  But most community managers aren’t the Howard Stern-ish type and most brands aren’t interested in how you feel about things. They certainly shouldn’t be satisfied with a disclaimer that “your opinions are your own” after you accidentally say something dumb via their account.

When you take on the job of community management—as an employee of an agency or brand or as a freelancer—you need to come to the table knowing that nobody—the brand most of all—cares what you think about religion, politics, social issues and, well, parenting.

You have to be aware that you are a public representative of the brand. In this case, for example, this person was not only working on the McDonald’s corporate Twitter account, she was also publicly introduced on their website as part of their social media team.

mcd post image 2

There Are Dangers to Being in the Community Management Spotlight

An important part of the equation here, at least to my way of thinking, is self-awareness. When someone is a public face of your company—whether it’s a very large organization or a very small one—they need to be aware that everything they do and say from a personal standpoint is, or can be, viewed as a reflection of the brand as a whole. It’s the nature of the beast.

And it’s where someone like Lizzie, as nice as she might be as a person—and I assume that she’s basically a good person—can be dangerous. She has opinions and isn’t afraid to share them. But as a representative of McDonald’s, she’s an easy and visible target. This is risky, for the employee and the brand. Even things that aren’t really inflammatory, like the tweets below, can be interpreted as such.

mcd post, image 3

How Do You Protect Against Human Error in Community Management?

If you own a business and your name is part of the company name, you’re responsible for everything that happens or is said in the name of that business—even if one of your partners is responsible.. The same is true with your community management team; if your name is “on the door,” you’d best be sure that people are watching everything you say and everything you do. This is especially important when you work with a company that people feel passionately about – either positively or negatively. A brand like McDonald’s, for example, is no stranger to activists.

For Community Managers: as an individual doing community management, the ways you can protect yourself are fairly simple:

  1. Separate personal from business. Use completely separate platforms for sharing personal content and brand content. This alleviates the chances of a mistake.
  2. Think before you send. Always, always, always look at what you’re saying, before you hit the “send” button. Make sure it’s something that’s appropriate to post on behalf of the brand as a whole. When you’re manning the front lines of community management for a brand, it’s not important what your personal thoughts are on an issue, it’s about your responsibility to personify the brand in the best manner possible. Always.
  3. Don’t react under pressure. When you’re involved in a potentially dangerous interaction online, walk away before saying or doing anything. Go find someone else on your team (or phone a friend if no one is nearby), and talk through it before you impulsively say something you might later regret. Don’t let the pressure of the situation compel you to do or say something you might well regret later.
  4. Get approval. Even after you’ve done that, find a supervisor, describe the situation, and ask for their guidance before you take action. It’s better to do nothing in an inflammatory situation than to do the wrong thing, so take whatever time you need to get it right. And when you can do that with the approval of a supervisor, that’s the route you need to take.

For employers: if you employ people doing social media community management work, there are different to take into consideration. They include:

  1. Respect your community managers. It’s an enormous job that you’re putting in the hands of your community managers, and the bigger your company, the bigger the responsibility. Always respect the fact that you are putting these people in the trenches, and that their jobs are neither fluffy nor insignificant. They are the front line of your brand, the voices that your customers hear (and sometimes see), and they hold a lot of your overall brand reputation in their hands.
  2. Training is essential. Regular and ongoing training is absolutely necessary when it comes to your social media community management team.
  3. Fire drills are essential. Practicing what to do in volatile situations is exponentially more valuable than being reactive. These situations are going to happen; put your people through some drills, and regularly refresh their training through a variety of different scenarios and exercises. This will not only make them better at their jobs in general, but they’ll also be happier and less stressed about the enormous responsibility they deal with on a day-to-day basis.
  4. Plan for a crisis. Having a social media crisis plan in place is critical. Make sure your social media community managers know to immediately take action when there’s a problem —and what that action should be.
  5. People are humans. Don’t forget it. Remember that people are only human. Mistakes happen— it’s inevitable—and it’s not the end of the world when they do. If we make things so tough on our community managers that they get the axe when they make a mistake, we’ll quickly find that no one wants to take that job. I wouldn’t blame them in the slightest for feeling that way.

This is an unfortunate situation and I feel for the person involved in this case. As I said before, I’m sure she’s a terrific person and doing a great job overall. This was one misstep—and one that isn’t uncommon. Let’s use these experiences to learn, not as opportunities to throw insults and accusations at one another. Let’s all just get smarter and do better.

What do you think? What have I missed? I’d really love to hear your thoughts on this.

By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about social media crisis planning, join my friend Ann Marie van den Herk, a PR pro and author of Social Media Crisis Communications: Preparing for, Preventing and Surviving a Public Relations Fail, this coming Tuesday, May 13th, for a free webinar.

Other resources on this topic:

Social Media Examiner:  How to Respond to a Social Media Crisis
V3 Blog: A Social Media Crisis Plan, Yes, You Need One

photo credit: Scott Smith (SRisonS) via photopin cc

  • Thank you so much for including my book and the webinar! Appreciate it. A lot.

  • ShellyKramer

    Sure thing AMVDH.

  • Hi Shelly,

    Once you manage for a brand opinions go out the window 😉 Great read, important for any community manager or social media user – business-wise – for that matter.


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  • BOOM! Excellent piece, Ms. K. Sure, tweeting from a corporate brand profile accidentally happens, and ownership can actually help that brand (think the Red Cross drunken tweet example).

    But this goes deeper than that. Lizzie is officially tied to her McDonald’s role through her “personal” username – it’s not her own profile anymore. And opinions, whether they’re right or wrong, immediately reflect on your employer. Something Lizzie has no doubt found out over the last few days…

    Great stuff, miss!

  • This is a conversation we’ve had on more than one occasion Shelly, for many reasons…mostly including my fire-first mentality you constantly warn me about. I think this kind of story and the steps you lay out for both the “person” and the “brand” can be used across almost all of the departments of the business. A person’s thoughts are a few key strokes and the send button away…and undoubtedly there is someone on the receiving in waiting to bury you for it (right/wrong).

    A part I think you’ve missed, or more-so is a much bigger issue, is how everyone in the company with a social account is a voice — and the lines of personal opinion and public opinion are beyond blurred. I don’t think a simple, “thoughts shared here are my own not my employers” doesn’t do it …. so the dynamics involved in the “hundreds of personal views under one roof” is definitely one worth diving into and talking more, publicly, about.

    For me at least, being someone with a loud voice (by choice), it is really really hard to always put the brand first. The topic fascinates me, and I by no means have it figured out.

  • ShellyKramer

    I really don’t think it’s a bigger issue, Ryan. I think that social media community management – when you have someone who is employed to man the front lines of engagement with your customers is one issue. And I think that employees and their personal lives and what they chose to do – or not do – online is a different issue. And one I didn’t intend to tackle here. I believe that companies must respect that their employees’ social media accounts and activity is personal and belongs to them. That said, there are as many dangers associated with being uber political, religious, racist, and a host of other inappropriate things in person as there are in engaging in that behavior online. I think that expecting your employees to comport themselves in a professional manner in person and as representatives of your company is the norm. I believe it’s also expected that the same norms apply to online behavior. And it’s incumbent upon the company to communicate that message to employees as well as to provide them training on the use of social media channels, in the event they want that training.

  • ShellyKramer

    Thanks so much, Danny. Appreciate the kind words. I totally feel for people when this kind of thing happens, and very much realize how “dangerous” it can be to be out there on those front lines for the people doing it. But for a brand, to me, it’s just incredibly simple. If ou’re going to put them out there, you’ve gotta do it knowing you can trust them to keep a level head and to never say or do anything that could potentially cause your brand harm. No loose cannons. No opinions one way or another. Extreme caution all the way.

    I hope things work out well for LIzzie on this, and I can’t imagine that’s an easy job, by any stretch of the imagination.

  • Michele_Simon

    Thanks for pointing this out. She did not apologize for her remark, but rather for “using the wrong account.” I kept trying to tell her that this was irrelevant, that she repped the brand in either place.

    Thanks for this thoughtful article, Shelly.

  • ShellyKramer

    I’m with you on this one, Michelle. There was not an apology. It was a crummy thing to say, no matter who said it. And when you’re publicly aligned with a brand, a worse move. Thanks for coming by and sharing your thoughts – I appreciate it.

  • Casey

    “You have to be aware that you are a public representative of the brand.” Good point. Did you look to see what I posted that would cause her to react this way? Also, are you aware that the only apology she made to me was that she was sorry she used the wrong account? I think there are even more lessons to be learned from this.

  • ShellyKramer

    I didn’t look, Casey. Because I didn’t want to get into the middle of that debate. What I hoped, instead, was that I could use this as a learning moment for all the people — brands, agencies and individuals — who do community management. I’d much less talk about social media #fails than talk about how we, as professionals can learn to do better. What I did notice, is that there was no apology and no real regret, other than the misuse of the brand account. And, for the record, if someone ever told me to go parent my kids,” as part of a disagreement, I’d be pissed off, too.

  • Casey

    Thank you for the reply and the reason I asked is because she called me a liar for sharing the photo without including the context. I was wondering if those writing about it had looked at the context. Of course I was angry not just with what she said about my parenting but also with her accusation that I stalked her and insulted her parenting which I did not. In any case, the bigger picture is that her lack of self control helped the #MomsNotLovinIt cause of using the #RonaldMcDonald hash tag to bring attention to the problem of McDonald’s using schools to market to kids.

  • ShellyKramer

    Thanks for the “back story” Casey. I can’t stand online fights and when a brand is involved, I just shake my head. That’s why I wrote about it – and also why I didn’t mention any additional details about the specifics of the disagreement. In my mind, it doesn’t matter. She’s wrong. Period. And the brand is in danger because of it. Period. That’s what I wanted my piece to be about, not about casting blame, because I think that we collectively do too much of that. But the bottom line, if this behavior helped a cause that you’re passionate about, well, then I suppose it’s not necessarily a bad thing. All in all, it’s really a shame that it happened in the first place – thanks for sharing some of the deets 🙂

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  • Susie Erjavec Parker

    Great article, Shelly. I’ll never understand why there is not more training and parameters from brands and the community managers they work with. There should be regular training opps and taking a pulse on the community from someone who oversees this area.

  • ShellyKramer

    Thanks Susie. I think it’s one of the very hardest jobs there is. And unfortunately, most companies don’t staff it with that in mind. Totally agree with your thoughts, too!!

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