Getting the tone right on social media – why is it difficult and how can you do it well?

This is the third in my series of blog posts about some of the challenges faced by social media managers in the public sector and in it I want to address one of the biggest challenges that attendees at our recent social media event told us they faced – how to get the tone right on social media. Rarely a week goes past these days without examples of organisations or public figures who have badly misjudged the tone of a social media post making the news. MPs and local politicians have been sacked or disciplined for making inappropriate social media posts, and commercial organisations get the tone wrong all the time. So, why does this happen and how can it be avoided?

Why is it so easy to get the tone of your social media posts wrong?

In large organisations it’s not uncommon to have substantial numbers of people using social media on behalf of the organisation, whether officially or unofficially. The more people who are using your social media channels, the more likely it is that someone will make a mistake. Different people have different ideas about what kind of tone is appropriate on social media. When you’re using a medium that you also use to chat with your friends it can be tricky to get the balance right between formality and approachability. Social media channels generally require a less formal tone than you might use in writing, for example, but you still need to bear in mind that you’re representing your organisation in an official capacity – getting this tone correct can be very difficult indeed.

It’s also not unusual to find that the people managing your social media accounts are relatively young. In commercial organisations it’s not uncommon to give control of the social media channels to interns or other inexperienced members of staff. It’s a mistake to assume that all young people somehow magically know how to use social media in a professional environment – it’s not the case. Quite often judging the correct tone is actually something that comes more easily to more experienced members of staff, although they might not necessarily be so confident in the mechanics of how the channels work.

Another feature of social media that makes mistakes more likely is the speed of it and the fact that it’s so easy to just type out a quick message and send it without really thinking about it. Getting the tone right in written communication is so much harder than on the phone or face to face as you don’t have benefit of tone of voice or body language to add nuance to your meaning. In particular, it can be very difficult to get humour right on social media, especially when you don’t know the person that you’re writing to. One person’s ironic aside is another person’s offensive comment. Staff who are posting on social media need to be empathetic and able to understand how their message might be perceived by the citizens who read it.

So, given everything I’ve just said, how can you set a consistent tone for your communications and minimise the chances of problems? Here are a few suggestions based on our experience.

Ensure that staff are properly trained and understand how social media works

This one is really critical. As I’ve said, you can’t assume that everyone knows how to use social media or is comfortable and confident using it. Even though people use social media in their personal lives, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily going to be skilled professional social media operators. People need training, both to understand how social media works in general terms and also to make sure they’re aware of the problems that can arise from inappropriate posts so that they think before they post. Apart from anything else, organisations have a duty of care to their staff to make sure that they don’t inadvertently expose themselves to any personal risk from unfortunate social media posts.

Consider setting up monitoring and pre-approval of posts 

One way to reduce the risk of inappropriate social media posts going out from the organisation is to use a social media management tool such as CrowdControlHQ. CCHQ enables you to control your social media posts in a number of different ways. For example, you can set up a system of flags based on libraries of words and phrases that aren’t ever acceptable so that posts using those terms get held back. You can also require certain staff members to have their posts pre-approved  by someone else in the team before they go live. Quite a few of the organisations that we work with use systems like this, where lots of staff members are able to write posts but with a few more senior, experienced members of the team casting an eye over them before they go out.

Try and keep the tone of your channel personal

Social media is fundamentally a personal medium so it is fine to have a more informal tone on social media than you would in a formal letter, for example. Being careful to avoid inappropriate posting doesn’t mean that everything needs to be stiff and formal in tone – it’s about striking a balance. Here again it’s training that really makes the difference. It can also be useful to have a clear set of written social media guidelines that help people understand what your ‘corporate’ tone is, what’s appropriate and what isn’t. Think about whether you want all your posts to come from a nameless corporate account or whether you are happy for individual staff members to identify themselves, even if only by first name. A lot of customer service channels in the commercial world use this approach, with different staff members signing on and off by name as they take over manning the social media feed. However, plenty of organisations prefer not to use this approach – you might decide you want to keep things fairly anonymous and that’s fine too. Just make sure that you have a clear policy on this and all your staff that use social media know what it is.

Collect examples of best practice from other organisations to show staff

One thing that’s really struck me as I work with our clients is the huge variety of different ways that public sector organisations use social media. Follow the social media feeds of other organisations like yours – follow them on Twitter, like their Facebook page, subscribe to their YouTube channel – and you’ll get all kinds of new ideas for innovative ways you could be using social media in your own organisation. Encourage your staff to share examples of things that they like (and indeed perhaps also things they think are not so good). By doing this you can start to build up a shared organisational understanding of what’s appropriate and what isn’t.

Have clear guidelines regarding how to reply to customers’ complaints

Dealing with complaints can be a tricky business in any medium but particularly so on social media when you often find that complaints are being aired in a public forum. It can be tempting to ignore negative comments posted onto your Facebook page or tweeted at you but it’s important to make sure that you reply to all comments, positive or negative, not only the positive ones. That said, there’s no requirement to engage in a full dialogue with someone in a public forum. It’s perfectly acceptable to tweet back asking someone to follow you so that you can direct message them and take the discussion into a more private space. Don’t be tempted to delete negative posts on your Facebook page unless they’re abusive or contain offensive language. Make sure you have a clear policy in place for how to deal with offensive and abusive comments. Staff shouldn’t be required to put up with these as part of their job – they need to know what kinds of posts need to be escalated and to whom they should talk if they feel uncomfortable about any message they receive.


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