In my career managing social media campaigns for corporate clients, I have approached online Community Management from many different angles. First, when short-staffed, as a Community Manager (CM) myself, then as a CM supervisor when managing full fledged campaigns and finally, as the creator of CM protocols for projects that carried reputation risks. As a matter of fact, most of the projects I have worked on involved moderating communities for clients with controversial projects. Invariably, these ‘communities’ were online environments that pushed CMs to their limits and, as a result, led us to discover common traps that they may be drawn into by the nature of their work.
Each trap is here identified as such because it led to undesired community interactions and dynamics and required extensive damage control afterwards. As those who have managed online communities know, our job places us in charge of delicate ecosystems, each with their own carefully created balance. Anything that we do that generates conflict and disrupts the community only makes our job that much harder.
1. Taking it personally
Professional CMs typically serve as the online voice of a brand or organization. The entity here represented, henceforth referred to as the the Community Owner (CO), may draw public heat for any number of reasons. When members of the online community decide to take issue with the brand/organization, they may do so in a very direct, aggressive or even insulting manner. In these cases, the CM will often feel personally attacked and this is only human. However, reacting with anger or sarcasm towards community members, though also a very human thing to do, can rapidly generate reputation issues for the CO if not an all-out flareup. Though individuals permit themselves all kinds of passionate and uninhibited behavior online, the same rules do not apply to a business or institution, simply because the online ethos always favors the ‘average guy’ over the brand. Such is the balance of power on social media. The CMs under fire that I have worked with, learned to take regular ‘time outs’ during which they would leave the office, go for a walk and take a few deep breaths before responding with renewed poise. A bit of distance can often go a long way when your role demands almost inhuman levels of tolerance!
2. Uneven moderation
All CMs have their good and bay days. The trap of uneven moderation arises when a CM’s moods dictate the level at which House Rules are applied to online community members. The severity of enforcement of these Rules, ie. banning users or slapping wrists for inappropriate content should, in principle, be constant. If their application fluctuates from one day to the next, especially if the community deals with controversial topics, the CM may be accused of taking sides and randomly censoring certain points of view. This is bad and can quickly degenerate if the community is not reassured as to the impartiality of the CM. All of the risks mentioned here are greater when a team of CMs is managing the same online community, as their distinct personalities might lead to uneven moderation. To avoid the trap of uneven moderation, it is important to codify a shared and detailed Moderation Protocol and have regular meetings where all responsible CMs get on the same page with their tone and approach. Typically, these meetings involved sharing live case studies of community behavior and coming to consensus on how such cases should be treated.
3. Over-defending the CO
Most service professionals and employees fall prey to the ‘sympathy syndrome’ when it comes to their client or employer. This is the tendency to see things more and more from the client or employers’ side and to come to personally identify with their needs and vulnerabilities, out of a desire to please and quite simply because they are paying one’s wages. The sympathy syndrome commonly clouds the CMs vision when moderating online communities.
When at their best, CMs are facilitators for dialogue between the CO and the public. They set the table, generate engagement with good content and calmly accept all feedback and criticisms concerning the CO’s services or activities so that they can channel them back to CO execs. However, as CMs spend day after day adopting the brand’s persona online, they may eventually drift towards a defensive posture regarding negative input. This is a serious reputation risk! CMs should never directly engage critics to defend their CO unless given clearance and detailed instructions from seniors in Corporate Communications / Public Affairs. And even then, in my opinion, a CM’s role is ideally that as a conduit between the CO and community members. Once they take on critics, their role as facilitator will be shot.
When negative issues need to be addressed, it is always best to defer to another authority within the CO team, have answers published as blog posts, or Facebook notes and then relay them to the community. That way, the CM can maintain a productive relationship with their community and not spend every minute of their day starting and putting out fires. They won’t last long in their position if that is the case.
Protocols save the day!
To conclude, let me offer a little perspective. A Community Manager, at the time of writing, is somewhat of a pioneer and s/he is navigating in almost virgin territory. Social media communities (relatively new) for business or organizational interests (very new) are managed by human beings who, despite being addressed as humans, sometimes aggressively, need to maintain almost perfect composure and tact. Given the complexity of this position, it almost comes down to mission impossible and all of us, myself included, have fallen into the traps described above at some time. What helps save us from these traps are protocols that are written, discussed and internalized by teams working on community management.