How to handle criticism on social media

Written by: Stephen James | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Many schools are now using social media to reach out and engage with their community, but it can also open us up to criticism and unfounded allegations from parents and others. Stephen James advises on how to handle these tricky situations


Any school setting with a strong social media presence knows that with increasing numbers of families and older children using it, there can be both positive and negative effects on the reputation of the setting and the school’s community.

While our young adults have had to learn how to deal with negativity through their personal accounts and the nature of growing up in a digital age, as schools and adults it can be much harder to comprehend.

Schools maintain a healthy online presence to reap the benefits of a wider audience, to promote the excellent opportunities that they are providing for their students, or to keep parents up-to-date and informed. However, this also can leave schools open to criticism and negativity and, in the worse cases, false allegations.

This article aims to give school leaders some advice and tips on how to deal with negativity. I will also touch upon how to stay ahead of the game in order to minimise the risks of this kind of thing happening in the first place.


Responding to negative comments

Do not delete the negative comments: Negative comments can be found in the comments sections of a post you have created, in the reviews section on Facebook or in a user-generated post where your school has been tagged or mentioned. Unless posts are explicitly inappropriate or vulgar, deleting them will only aggravate the user and likely make the problem worse.

Be calm and considered in your response: Derogatory and inflammatory comments can be a personal attack on an individual or aimed at the school in general. Either way, it is important to respond in a timely and calm manner. While you will want to reply fairly quickly, you must also give yourself time to craft a considered and professional response. It is important to give yourself time to detach emotionally too – to calm down – before responding. The perpetrator often just wants to have their opinion heard, and although it is in the wrong forum we need to set an example to all readers of the comments of exactly how to deal with these situations rationally (including pupils and colleagues who are online).

Take the conversation elsewhere: Explain to the user that you have heard what they have said but would like to continue the conversation offline. This can be written as a response on the post so that other members of the community can see that you are addressing the situation, but that it is not a conversation that needs to be public. You do not want yourself or staff members to become embroiled in a public discussion which could become inflammatory and result in more damage – certainly if complaints or accusations are involved.

Gather evidence: If you become aware of any information, allegations or accusations about a member of staff or the school in general, it will be important to gather screenshots, times and dates of these messages. It is important to obtain this evidence so that facts can be established. Collating usernames and creating a chronology of events or messages will give rigour to any investigation that may be required. Unfortunately, closed groups could mean that you do not always have access to this evidence, however you will be able to gain information on the administrator of the group should further action be required. School leaders or the investigators should do their utmost to keep the identity of the person concerned hidden. As previously mentioned, if a user wants to make a complaint against the school or indeed a member of staff, they should do this directly with the school and not via social media.

Look after those affected: School leaders have a duty of care to ensure that their staff and pupils are protected from third party harassment. The level of support required will be down to the individual, but schools should have a system in place to make sure pupil and staff wellbeing is a priority. Staff may also want to contact their union or other organisations, especially if there have been allegations or accusations.


Be proactive and minimise the risk

Research apps specifically to look after your school: Your school probably has a social media manager who is busy producing content and scheduling posts. However, it can sometimes be easy to miss comments. It is worth researching some of the apps out there, such as Buffer or Hootsuite, to help you monitor your social media profiles. This offers an extra level of security and can flag unsavoury activity on your accounts. There are other apps such as Mention and Hooter which can look for prepopulated words on social media, including the name of your school. With this insight it is much easier to find negative comments about your school before they have been spread more widely.

Make sure policies are in place to address potentially negative situations: Before plugging your social media platforms, it is important to have an Acceptable User Policy in place. This policy should be signed by staff and pupils to ensure that they use digital technology and the internet safely and understand the sanctions resulting from breaches of this policy. Many settings have included statements that refer to parental support on this matter and also ask parents to monitor their children’s use of digital technology and social media while they are out of the setting. It is important to have a social media section in your school’s Complaints Policy, this way, there is a set procedure to follow should an online allegation be made. Policies provide structure and clarity in sensitive or difficult situations.

Give parents a voice: To minimise the risk of online rants and negative comments, try creating a parents’ forum and actively encourage feedback – just not online. If parents feel like they have a voice and they are being listened to, they are much less likely to take to social media.

Create a whole-school community understanding of how to use social media respectfully: Create a positive attitude towards the use of social media. Post regular content about children’s’ achievements and the excellent experiences that they are participating in. If the community sees social media as a positive place for celebration and useful information they are much less likely to see it as an appropriate forum for negativity. Safe use of social media should also be embedded in the curriculum through RSHE and PSHE. There would be no harm offering information to parents too, as this may be very new to them.


Conclusion

Negative comments can be hurtful. Although some people see the public nature of social media as an opportunity for “freedom of speech” and an audience, others see purposeful negativity towards a school as “school-shaming”. It is down to each establishment to facilitate discussion and to allow a voice from the community to be heard. However, at the same time, the community needs to understand the expectations and etiquette that come with an active social media presence and the repercussions misuse can have on the pupils, staff and the school.


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