Turning an Online Negative Into a Real-World Positive

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Earlier this year, when I was still working as a newspaper reporter, I received a nasty email from a reader in response to a story. Instead of instinctively leaping in with an emotional, defensive reaction, I replied with a professional, point-by-point response to his comments. I invited him to email or call to continue the discussion and thanked him for taking the time to write.

He was clearly surprised to hear from me. As we continued emailing, I discovered his comments were based on a minor turn of phrase, something easily addressed. By the end of our exchange, he was thanking me.

Negative comments about your work come with being a journalist. It’s no different for a school district. The education of our children is a subject about which most people — be they parents or community members — have an opinion. And they’re sharing those opinions online. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, as of September 2013, 78% of people ages 30-49 and 65% of people ages 50-64 used social networking sites.

It doesn’t matter if negative online comments are fair or even factual. The more times something gets repeated, the more validity it has to those who see it. With social media, statements get repeated often — and quickly.

But fear of negative comments shouldn’t keep a school system from encouraging community input. And it certainly shouldn’t keep school leaders offline. The conversation — negative or positive ­— will happen whether you are privy to it or not, according to Brian Solis, one of the foremost thought leaders on the convergence of social media and business. Being involved, however, gives you the chance to address concerns and enact positive change.

Keep these four points in mind, and you may just turn an online negative into a real-world positive:

  • People want to be heard. That’s why they comment, tweet, email, write letters to the editor or pick up the phone. And while being heard requires someone to listen, more often than not people don’t expect a receptive audience.
  • Everyone’s perspective is shaped by what they know. If a commenter’s one experience with you or your school system is negative, that’s all they have to draw on.
  • Don’t avoid responding to a negative comment. It will quickly swell beyond your control, as the author shares the story of your silence. Then you have proven your naysayer right — you’re not listening; you don’t care. According to author and customer service expert Micah Solomon, a small error coupled with a slow response time can lead to a “colossal public relations disaster.”
  • If you answer a negative comment in a positive manner you’ll often find the situation immediately diffused. Saying “Thank you for your email” or “I appreciate your feedback” can have a strong impact.

One tool being used by a growing number of school districts to monitor the pulse of their community — and diffuse potential problems before they escalate — is Let’s Talk!, a 24/7 outlet for community ideas, concerns and praise. Because it’s accessible anytime, anywhere, from any device, Let’s Talk! effectively mitigates the more negative aspects of social media.

Rather than fearing customer feedback, use technology to powerfully turn a negative exchange into a catalyst for positive change.

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