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What To Do When Your Community is in Crisis

Written by Molly Talbert | on January 20, 2016 at 8:30 AM

Imagine: you just sat down with a cup of coffee to start the day’s work and notice an angry, ranting blog post about a recent decision your organization made. Suddenly, your coffee tastes extra bitter. Throughout the day, the post only gains more traction and the comments spiral out of control, becoming unproductive and trolling.

Looks like crisis hit.

Community is a place for customers and members to talk, express themselves and share information. Usually this works out well for both you and them -- aren’t win-win situations nice? But sometimes, when crisis hits, your community can become less than idyllic for you, your members/customers and your organization. It probably has nothing to do with the community or you as a manager -- maybe there’s a big change in the industry or an organizational crisis people are upset about -- but your community is certainly playing a big part in the saga. And now you have to deal with it.

Community in crisis -- what’s a community manager to do?

1. Plan for a crisis.

Since you never know when crisis will hit -- it may be sudden or you may see the tone gradually shift towards negativity -- you need to be proactive. Plan for a crisis before it happens. With a plan in place, you can hopefully mitigate the crisis before it snowballs out of control rather than react, in the moment, to what’s going on.

2. Strong rules that back you up.

The first step in your planning process is to make sure your community is built on solid ground -- this means you need strong rules and guidelines. This document should be in place even before your community launches. It should be taken seriously -- have an attorney look it over to make sure it’s sound. It’s also important to have a phrase somewhere in the document that allows you to ‘change the terms and conditions if need be’, since you never know when you’re going to spot a hole or find an ambiguous phrase.

One helpful hint is to phrase rules in a positive light -- ‘be productive’ or ‘be professional’ rather than ‘don’t do this.’ Positive phrasing leaves a little room for interpretation, which is helpful for you, and sets a more productive tone. When an issue arises, you should be able to point to a sentence in your guidelines that backs you up: ‘your post wasn’t very professional and we’d appreciate if you’d rephrase it.’

3. Uphold policies in place.

Now that you have a set of rules, you need to uphold those policies. Enforcing is easier said than done -- telling passionate people they’re acting out of line can be hard. But it’s critical for maintaining the community’s integrity. That’s why we also recommend you have a ‘three-strikes-you’re-out’ policy in your guideline to handle repeat offenders. The first violation is just a warning, the second is suspension and third is expulsion (or moderate the scale to fit your environment). It’s not fun to suspend or kick someone out, but it’s important for the health of your community that unproductive/unprofessional people aren’t allowed to participate.

4. Talk to your vocal critics (call me maybe?).

Another tip for enforcing community guidelines is to actually pick up the phone and talk to repeat offenders or your most vocal critics. Sometimes members don’t realize they’re breaking rules or that their tone is so harsh. And sometimes you don’t know exactly why some people are so angry. Regardless, reaching out personally shows vocal or disgruntled members you do care, you are listening and you’re working to solve the problem. If it doesn’t feel appropriate for you, community manager, to make the call, then have someone higher up reach out, like a VP or senior manager. This simple gesture will go a long way -- and who knows what you’ll both learn.

5. Silence is your worst enemy.

If you’re hesitant to be very communicative with members during a crisis, remember that silence can be your worst enemy. Don’t just passively listen and churn out disingenuous responses -- truly listen to what people say, let them know they’re heard and try to learn from their dissatisfaction.

AirBNB, unfortunately, is the perfect example of how not to handle a crisis situation. In 2011, when the startup was growing but their longevity was shaky, a woman wrote a blog post about how AirBNB guests utterly destroyed her home. The company remained silent for too long and, once they realized the story wouldn’t go away, offered a seemingly disingenuous response and didn’t follow up on certain promises. Needless to say, it only made the story blow up even more,making them appear callous.

6. Don't just listen -- respond.

How did AirBNB dig themselves out? Their saving grace was this blog post, in which they bluntly acknowledged their mistakes, took full responsibility for the situation and gave specific examples of how they, as a company, were changing in response to the crisis. So learn from AirBNB’s mistake -- have a plan to actually listen and respond to your outspoken members or customers.

7. Increase positive engagement.

No matter how well prepared your community is, you may still find yourself in the midst of a crisis one day. But remember: chances are the majority are not as angry as the vocal few. You may worry membership will slip when the disgruntled leave, but you should really worry about the people who aren’t angry -- what value do they receive from trolling, fighting and extreme conflict? Sure, a certain amount of tension is good, but not when it boils over into hurtful unproductivity. The silent, disengaged members are actually the ones at flight risk -- why would they stay if nothing productive is happening?

To keep productive members from leaving, redirect negativity and increase positive engagement. Here’s one way: reach out to community champions and ask them to start different discussions unrelated to the crisis unfolding. Your community is still a helpful resource, full of insight and valuable interactions, so make sure those spaces remain intact. Often times an argument will cloud productive conversations -- members don’t know how to cut through that clutter to ask the questions they really want answers to.

Hang in there -- your community will eventually calm down. Rather than jumping into the fray and picking fights, work to stay above the conflict, be professional and don’t take it personally.

What does your community’s crisis plan look like? Have you ever handled a community in turmoil?


Topics: Online Community Management, Engagement, Online Community

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