A little while ago, we received an email from a senior pastor asking us to share some best practices for handling negative online comments or reviews of your church. His question reminded me of a client I once had when I worked in corporate communications.
This particular client had not been paying attention to online reviews at all for years; and then, a crisis hit. By then, they had had so many years of negative comments that they had few options for improving what people found about them online. That’s a worst-case scenario.
This can be a challenging subject. I do not believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution because the nature of the comments can vary so wildly. That being said, here are a few general guidelines to help you process this with your team:
1. Stay on top of where people are commenting about your church.
There are the obvious places, like Facebook and Twitter, but don’t forget Google Maps, Yelp, TripAdvisor, etc. Sometimes local news websites have a place to rate local businesses or places. You won’t be able to control what goes on in many of these places, but being aware of what’s out there is a good idea.
2. Designate a member of your team to be responsible for monitoring comments on all of your social media accounts daily, and checking in on other places where people can comment at least twice per month.
Timely responses go a long way and can sometimes stop a crisis before it occurs.
3. Leverage your community to balance things out.
If you’ve received a lot of negative comments on a public site like Google Maps, personally ask a few people who love your church to add their comments. The thing about the web is that it’s more often angry people who are motivated to post comments and reviews. Those ratings and threads are very rarely a true reflection of how most people feel.
You may have to make an offline ask to address an online issue.
4. Clearly outline what’s acceptable and what’s not in any forums where you allow discussion. (e.g. Facebook, a forum for your online campus, a pastor’s blog, etc.)
You should address both how the church will respond to negative comments and what’s expected from staff members if they get negative comments directed at them individually. I personally think it’s best to allow negative comments to be posted so long as they do not personally attack a person, use explicit language or hate speech, or become flagrantly disrespectful.
For example, you could determine that no one on staff is permitted to lash out at a commenter on social media, even if that commenter is crossing a line or saying something untrue. But, staff members are permitted to block anyone who makes personal attacks or repeatedly harasses church accounts or other staff members. Here’s a great example of a staff social media policy from Chase Oaks Church in Plano, Texas.
Provide some sample scenarios of what’s appropriate. It’s always better to prepare for the worst. If I’m honest, I’ve seen some church staff members be pretty nasty online. I have to think that apart from lacking sound judgment, they had not been given any clear guidelines from their leaders.
Most often, your community will come to your rescue and counter negative comments that are off-base. You can respond respectfully acknowledging the person’s point of view and offering your own. If they respond back in a disrespectful manner, it’s your prerogative whether or not to approve that comment (if you’re on an owned site) or to respond again (if on a public one). Help your team know when it’s ok to not have the last word.
5. Document the why behind your strategy for handling negative comments.
How you interact with people online can reveal God’s heart of grace. It reveals a lot about any individual staff member’s character. Make sure your team understands that the goal should always be to show God’s love first.
Kem Meyer, author of Less Chaos, Less Noise: Effective Communication for an Effective Church, shared some great thoughts with me on this:
“Personally, the philosophy I always advocate is to look at negative comments as a chance to affirm someone who has taken the time to share their feedback. Never ignore them or argue with them. Simply acknowledge their feelings. Demonstrate you took the time to listen. Most of the time, you get a chance to connect the complainer to a resolution (because they just didn’t know where to find it). Other times, you can simply respond with empathy. Many times that’s all they’re looking for anyway. When you show you’re not afraid of a difference of opinion (by arguing or deleting), you gain more credibility as an organization. You show by your actions your church is not over-censored or sterilized.”
6. Be working on a solid content strategy.
I’ve written about the importance of a content strategy before. I still don’t see many churches doing this well.
Besides being a fantastic way to connect with the people you’re trying to reach, it also builds a history of positive content connected with your church online. That base can help to overshadow/counter negative comments in and of itself. It also helps you connect your real-life church family online, so you have people who know and love you posting on your behalf.
Have a plan and be proactive, but don’t get sidetracked by negative comments. Everybody gets some eventually — especially if you’re doing something new and different to reach people! Stay focused on the mission and vision of your church, and you’ll find that the community of people who buy-in will overshadow detractors.
Another great resource to check out: