Why we should reply to users – even angry ones

Do you respond to your news org’s detractors?

Sure, we all talk about how engagement is SO IMPORTANT and we want to work with our readers, but when it comes to criticism, I so often hear social media coordinators or newsroom editors say, “Eh, I just ignore them, no point in replying.” Not so.

First of all, keep in mind, there are two types of detractors you’re likely dealing with here: Trolls and complainers. Complainers can be turned into fans – or at least neutral parties – but trolls will always be trolls, no matter what you do. While it can be difficult to sort through your hate mail/comments to find those that would benefit from a reply, it’s worth it if you can change at least one mind.

Case in point: Last Friday, we at The Huffington Post, along with every other news outlet, posted Sarah Palin’s emails from her time as governor of Alaska and asked readers to pore through them. In our post, we included an email address for people to send their observations. Predictably, this email address got quite a few angry notes from Palin fans, Republicans and people who generally just don’t like the idea of anyone reading anyone’s emails.

Some of the criticism came in as your standard troll fare – all caps with lots of name-calling and vulgarity thrown around with no actual explanation about why they were upset. Those were tossed out. The others – those who cited what their complaint actually was – got an email directly from me (not a nameless form email).

After reading through the first few dozen, I saw a few themes emerging. I wrote three basic form emails, one for each theme, and saved them in my Gmail. (If you’ve not used canned responses in Gmail Labs, you are missing out. It has so many uses.)  I then plowed through the emails and added the canned responses according to their specific complaint – if an email didn’t fit the canned reponse, I quickly wrote a custom note.

All in all, it took me about an hour to get through a few hundred emails. Did it make a difference? Well, check out these responses from some originally very angry readers…

Thank you for your reply, I am pleasantly surprised to hear from you.

I have been on aol for many years and had been thinking about switching and cannot understand why a news outlet would employ a far left blog to run its news page.  Your email is one reason to stay.  Please keep it objective.

Thank you Mandy for your surprising reply. I really did not expect to hear back from someone.

Thank you for responding. May God bless you and our country.

Thanks for taking your time to respond; an unexpected surprise — I understand and appreciate your position on the issue now

I do appreciate your response, and must admit that I was quite surprised to receive one.  Again, thank you!

I do thank you, again, for the response. I appreciate that you bothered to take the time a form a thought on it! :)

Admittedly, many of these had a “but” after these comments, but you could tell they were happy to hear from anyone. I had a few others where my troll radar was off – and now they are emailing me directly to tell me how awful I am. So goes the Internet. That’s what the mute button is for.

This same strategy goes for Twitter, Facebook and on-site comments. Pick who has an actual problem, a tangible complaint – and try to address it. Even if you only say “I’m passing this on to the right person,” at least you are showing that you’re listening.

Back in the day, newsroom customer service meant picking up the general phone number in the newsroom. Now we have a lot more channels for readers to lodge their complaints. All we need to do is pick up the phone.

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