I have a sticker on my copy stand from Scott Stratten: “Ignore the haters. You’re not the Jackass whisperer.” While I admire the sentiment (and it makes me laugh when I need it), with some social communities, you can’t. So, when you can't escape from crafting responses to angry people, take a deep breath, and remember 4T2P.
When it's not readily apparent (e.g., when you're responding on someone else’s blog or off one of your official social media accounts), always disclose your affiliation to the organization and your role within it. Signing as a real person also may temper ... well, tempers. Sometimes it's easier to yell at a logo than the person behind the posts.
The tone of your reply should be professional, yet in keeping with the medium. It’s okay to use the lingo of the medium—hashtags and word shortening on Twitter, for instance—but not at the expense of good grammar, spelling, punctuation, or your brand voice.
That being said, if your brand is a little edgy, sometimes it’s okay to use that voice, too. Take this response from One Stop Biker Shop, to a comment they got when they posted on a snow day (for the rest of us, “SOA” refers to the cancelled show "Sons of Anarchy":
If the nature of your response is to correct misinformation, you should link to more information where possible. This also is a way of linking to a longer, more nuanced reply on your own blog or website, especially if you’re required to respond on Twitter. Depending on the nature of the misinformation, linking to other sources is a good idea, too.
You’ve probably heard that on social media, timing is everything, and you should aim to reply as soon as you can.
However, if you have to reply to a very vitriolic post, give it 30 minutes to an hour. If you answer back right away, your chances of being sucked into a nasty discussion are higher, because the poster may still be focused on you. By waiting a bit, you give the poster a chance to cool down and get distracted by other things. You also give yourself a chance to check for errors, run it by another set of eyes, and make sure your response isn’t emotional, either.
If you need to triage, focus your efforts on responding to high-profile commenters. Doing so ensures the most eyes on your response with the fewest resources. However, you should only triage when it is impossible (not just inconvenient) to respond to all. If you've only got a handful of replies to make, answer them all.
Do not disclose confidential or proprietary information in your reply. Sometimes this requires you to get creative—request ing permission to direct-message the person, for instance. Usually, a response like “We need to protect your privacy. Can I DM you some info?” will work.
Fun fact: both FOIPP and PIPA legislation require the organization to protect people from their own stupidity (not the actual words in the legislation, of course). If one of your clients, employees or publics is disclosing private information on a channel you control, the law expects you to protect their privacy for them—by removing it, for example. “We had to remove that comment to protect the author’s privacy.” D’awww. Problem solved.
Hope that helps. If not, there’s always wine.
Nikki Van Dusen, MA, has worked in public relations and corporate communications departments for more than 15 years. A winner of a 2015 IABC Gold Quill award, she has emerged as a leader in social media strategy and web-facilitated communication.