I worked on a challenging healthcare client issue three years ago. The (former) client had mishandled stakeholder criticism for months. This included ignoring questions and concerns posted by the people our client exists to serve (let’s call them the “community”) on our client’s official Facebook Fan Page. There was a general perception our client had talked down to their community at public meetings and when quoted in traditional media channels.

The community felt betrayed and abandoned. So they did the only thing they could do to get attention. They conducted what equated to a mutiny — they took over our client’s official Facebook Fan Page. In addition to posting criticism of our client and ad hominem attacks of its senior leadership and the Facebook Fan Page administrator, they did the public information work on behalf of our client. That is, they answered legitimate questions posed to our client with relevant healthcare information. Against our better advice, our client informed us they would prefer to “go dark.”

Basically, our client created the conditions to marginalize itself, allowing the community to not only criticize it but to do the work our client should have been doing.

We provided a number of key pieces of counsel. This included:

  1. Replace the Facebook Fan Page administrator. A fresh face would give our client the opportunity to reset with a new personality not known to the community. This would buy them time with the community which would likely give the new person a chance if he or she presented themselves well.
  2. Have the new admin work on building relationships with the community and its members. This would include reinforcing the community participating policies regarding profanity, ad hominem attacks, etc… Since it had been some time since the policies had been enforced, a two-to-three week “amnesty” period during which warnings would be issued would help reframe the conversation and allow people to understand what content crossed a line. The core of this was DO NOT delete anything already in the group and DO NOT delete anything during the transition period.
  3. Be more communicative *with* the community. And, respond to criticism with grace and dignity. This includes allowing the criticism provided it was presented productively and within the participation guidelines.
  4. Harness the passion of the community. Some of the most vocal critics were also the most active when it came to providing relevant and effective healthcare information. I suggested harnessing that rather than fighting it. Ultimately, it would be helpful for all involved. And, allowing the community to help the community made our client look progressive and inclusive.
  5. Respectfully correct misinformation and disinformation. Inaccurate and intentionally (or even malicious) misleading information could be very problematic. The new admin would have to catch that quickly and provide accurate information in a proper way.
  6. Organize meetups. Having the admin host ad hoc meetups at restaurants or coffee shops while travelling would help humanize the admin, build stronger relationships between our client and the community, and would strengthen the community itself. Meeting people face to face would be critical to softening the tone online.
  7. Listen and respond to community concerns. Hearing and acknowledging was only half the battle. Our client needed to be more proactive —  actually listening to their community and providing meaningful feedback.
  8. Under no circumstances talk down to or at your community. Anything that required a change in attitude or behaviour had to be done slowly, gently and with ample time to engage. We specifically told our client that any sudden and rash move, particularly anything done in what might be considered a sneaky way, would have disastrous effects.

Our client wasn’t comfortable with much of our advice.  It was the last point, though, that caused our client the greatest problem.

Just before leaving for the weekend, around 4:45pm on a Friday afternoon, our client posted a letter from its leadership to the Facebook Page. The heart of the letter was the community was out of line, our client was acting in the best interest of its community and that the community had best be well-behaved. To show they were serious, they deleted a slew of critical comments from the page.

Our client did this without consulting or warning us.

By 5pm there were 80 very heated comments. Our client was facing the online equivalent of being drawn and quartered — all of this while the decision-makers sat blissfully unaware in rush hour traffic. While our client enjoyed a comfortable weekend at home, away from the office, the community piled on 200 more very spicy comments.

Trying to sneak something under the radar was an effective strategy in the 70s, 80s, 90s and even part of the early 2000s. It may even work on the very rare occassion, now. However, it is absolutely NOT worth the risk. It’s far too easy for a resourceful journalist or critic to stalk and expose you… even if you’re passing paperwork to the municipality through the back door. Someone will notice. Someone will tweet it. Then, while you’re sleeping, your critics will use their voice and organize.

Being sneaky means gambling your reputation and credibility. It’s not worth the risk.

Featured image: Explosion posted to Flickr by gynti_46.

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