The Nonprofit Marketing Blog

Reader question: What do I do about misinformation online?

Today I answer another reader question. David asks:

As an advocacy based non-profit, should we acknowledge or address negative and untrue comments about our organization and our positions? Some of the Board want to ignore the comments and others want to respond to the comments.

Here’s my advice on handling negative comments.

1. Listen for them. Be sure you monitor what people are saying about your organization online.

2. When you find something negative or wrong, assess who is saying it and who is listening. Is this one crazy person with no audience? You might want to just watch and wait. Or is it someone who talks to people in your audience? Even one noisy person can be a problem if he or she has or can rapidly build a following with people who matter to you. I generally err on the side of judging someone worth responding to rather than ignoring negative remarks. Remember, people are speaking out online because they want to be heard. It’s wise to show you are listening to them.

3. Act fast on the site where it started. If you need to respond, do it as soon as you can calmly answer (never when you’re still annoyed), in the venue where the situation started. Things move at lightning speed online, and you don’t want something to spiral out of control before you get in a response. It’s OK if you don’t have all the answers or every piece of needed information — just be transparent about it. “Thanks for sharing your view – I am looking into your concern” is better than radio silence. “I’m concerned about what you reported about our policy and am finding out what happened so I can give you the response you deserve” is better than nothing. But do that on Twitter if the negative comment was a Tweet. Respond on LinkedIn if it happened on LinkedIn. No need to issue a press release over a Facebook comment. Respond on Facebook.

4. Be honest, transparent, friendly and open. This is key. If there is misinformation out there, correct it in a helpful, noncombative way. My organization’s own crisis communications plan (hope you have one, too) sets out the following principles:

Never delete negative comments unless they are profane or hate speech.
Thank people for expressing their opinion. They need to know we are listening. If they feel we are not, they will only get louder. Reflect back to them their feelings.
Be sincerely apologetic if we’ve done wrong. Take responsibility and say what we’re doing to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Err on the side of open, frequent communication.
Be absolutely honest.
Ensure what we say is accurate — if we’re not sure, say we’re not sure.

5. If you’re dealing with incorrect facts, don’t repeat them when you graciously correct the record! Why waste words repeating what isn’t true? It could reinforce the falsehood. A couple of years back, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tried to combat myths about the flu vaccine by listing commonly held views and labeling them either “true” or “false.” Examples of myths were, “The side effects are worse than the flu” and “Only older people need flu vaccine.” University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz found that after reading the flier, the target audience incorrectly recalled 28 percent of the false statements as true. And three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual. If you are trying to overcome a falsehood, you’re doing yourself no favors by repeating it—even if only to debunk it. Repeating myths perpetuates them.

6. Remember, what you’re in is not a debate – it’s a conversation. This isn’t a monologue by the critic or by you. Nor is it a war. It’s a conversation. When you respond, be open to reactions, and answer questions. Speak as a human being, not a press release. People are watching how you handle that conversation, so be at your best. You can’t post one response and call it a day; you need to keep tabs on the situation and participate in the ongoing conversation. But don’t descend into tit for tat.

The bottom line? Breathe deeply until you find yourself able to type the words, “I’m so glad you took the time to share your view.” Then respond, graciously, from there. As long as the person isn’t a troll, he or she deserves to feel heard, acknowledged and understood. Most sane people are genuinely nice when you make that effort to grasp their side and share your own. If you get venom in response, let it go. You tried, and the other people watching the exchange will see who took the high road. You may not win over the commenter, but you may win over the people reading the exchange.

Good luck!

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About This Blog

Carrie Saracini
Content Marketing Manager

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