There is a very good chance that, at some point in your career, you will face a crisis. It may be a traumatic event, a forum thread war, or an entire community of detractors. In that case, you will have to navigate through the landmines, being aware of triggers that cause community members to become defensive.
Negative news tend to dominate headlines and newsfeeds, but I do believe people are capable of much more. Communities can shine as positive and inclusive spaces when other outlets have grown dim. It’s our job to take care of our members, even in times of crisis.
Over the last two years managing community for a group of incredibly passionate tabletop gamers at Gygax Magazine, I have seen and dissipated my fair share of community crises.
During that time, I have discovered five real threats to community stability. While dealing with them is no walk in the park, taking a proactive approach to these threats will make your job a whole lot easier and will make your community members feel safer and more secure.
Even in a crisis, we have power to act. The worst feeling is that of hopelessness, and the feeling that you can’t set things right. This plan will help you act even when you’re not sure where to begin.
The 5 Threats to Community Stability
There are both internal and external threats that our communities face. In general, they fall in five major buckets, and we can take a proactive stance to solve each of them.
1. Bullying and harassment within the community
Bullying and harassment occur in communities where people are especially passionate about causes and interests. Bullying tends to occur when members feel that, in order to get what they want or their voices heard, they pick on those whom they deem “weak.”
Psychologically speaking, this occurs for a variety of reasons and happens online more prevalently because of the distance that most online community spaces create between members. It can be an effort to assert dominance or be heard, and it should never be okay. The longer you wait to call out bullies, the more entrenched they become.
2. Business criticism, complaints, and disappointments
No business is immune to criticism. Yet, there is no need to take it personally. Feedback is better than silence (and most members will never give their feedback, even if it’s solicited). If people complain, it is because they care. These moments can be used to build community rather than break down the business.
3. Internal company change
Turn-over is a normal occurrence, but when employees are also members of your community, people will take sides. Gygax has a small staff and all members are highly visible to customers. When we parted ways with our first art director, many questioned what had happened behind the scenes.
4. Events in the news, good or bad
The truth is that your success is tied to other companies in the same vertical. Gygax Magazine publishes content related to many games from the indies all the way up the chain to Paizo. The choices of these game publishers also impact our community.
In your industry, there are other competitors who will also enter into conversations in your community. You’ll want to be aware of what is going on and create a strategy for dealing with larger conversations when your competitors and allied companies are involved.
5. Coordinated protest of your company
It is probably easier for you to think of a company that has mishandled their affairs than for you to think of one who has succeeded. Sometimes, members will organize collectively against the actions you take. For instance, when subscriptions were first offered of Gygax, our international subscribers became very vocal about the high shipping cost. The team worked around the clock to find a solution.
There are ways to take what is thrown at you and turn it into an opportunity to connect.
Taking a Proactive Approach to Community Crisis
The best strategy for dealing with any of these crises is vigilance and prep work. Prevent blowups from happening by proactively attending to potential triggers before they explode.
Here’s how to handle each of these issues.
1. A Proactive Approach to Harassment
When facing harassment, your emotions will take over, and you won’t be able to communicate clearly with the transgressor. You need a moderation strategy well ahead of any trouble you may face. You need to document what types of situations you expect to encounter and how you would handle each event.
With a playbook by your side, you will always have a reference for responding, which mitigates the impact of your feelings.
To illustrate, I was really put to the test when I received this comment in my first two months of working with Gygax Magazine. (Excuse the crude language here, it is meant to illustrate how demeaning these comments can be.) I responded quickly to send a message that any behavior which was threatening to women was unacceptable.
Elements to Consider in Your Moderation Playbook
1. Trigger Words and Phrases
Write down the words which are the most inflammatory and require immediate action when they are seen. They may cover that which is specific to a sub-culture, like “fake geek girl.”
2. Your Language
The language of your rules will influence your communities compliance. Appropriate framing should be considered as you write them.
3. Moderation Strategy Evolves
Your playbook is not a static document. Your experiences implementing your strategy will inform what needs to change. Clip your exchanges for reference later.
And here is some more food for thought: identify possible detractors and “bullies” early on and give them more productive work to do.
A recent UCLA study about bullies in schools suggests that you might speak to these bullies (who tend to be more popular both online and offline) and find a way to harness their passion in a productive, rather than reductive, way.
“‘Think if there might be another way to provide them with a sense of control and power other than being mean to others,’ says Jaana Juvonen, a professor of developmental psychology, in a UCLA Newsroom interview. “‘I’ve seen some very clever teachers do that. When they see a kid who’s constantly on the case of other kids, these clever teachers give this kid a special role’ that channels the bully’s energies more positively.”
2. A Proactive Approach to Disappointment
In moments of disappointment, don’t underestimate the power of honesty.
At the first CMX Summit, I was deeply moved by Ligaya Tichy’s presentation on community at Airbnb. She describes a harrowing moment in Airbnb’s history (at about 29:33) when a host’s house was completely trashed. She describes the many ways in which the company faltered, but community came together in support because of shared values.
Here are a few ways to handle these situations:
- Respond to each comment within 24 hours no matter where it has occurred (social media, email, blog). Be transparent about where the company is in the process.
- Treat each encounter as if it is the first time you heard the message.
- Shift to face-to-face or private communication; get people on the phone or meet them in person.
No matter what, do three things: Empathize, admit the fault, and tell them how the crisis is being fixed.
At Gygax, we often get feedback via our social channels and we find ways to take this feedback into consideration and make it actionable. For instance, when a community member was unhappy with the poster design we released, we asked for his ideas and acknowledged his opinion.
3. A Proactive Approach to Company Changes
Companies evolve over time, but major upheavals often occur during the in-between phases. It is not uncommon for a company to face layoffs, product discontinuations, or pivoting of the business model.
It is only natural for the community to feel hurt by these sudden changes. In these situations, I look to the concept of “holding space” for people. You should act as a guide for customers and give them space to process. Let them know their feelings are justified and heard.
Holding space is a concept that therapists and coaches often use that also holds true in community. It is a practice used for allowing people to process their feelings:
“To truly support people in their own growth, transformation, grief, etc.,” Heather Plett explains, “We can’t do it by taking their power away (ie. trying to fix their problems), shaming them (ie. implying that they should know more than they do), or overwhelming them (ie. giving them more information than they’re ready for). We have to be prepared to step to the side so that they can make their own choices, offer them unconditional love and support, give gentle guidance when it’s needed, and make them feel safe even when they make mistakes.”
When responding to comments, a technique like reflection will clarify what the customer needs from you.
4. A Proactive Approach to Industry News
The internet is primarily a medium of communication. But our best tools cannot reach into the dark web, private communities online, or offline discussion.
There is a solution. Members of your community have multiple identities and frequent forums outside of your influence. To handle this, tap members to become ears on the ground in the other places they frequent.
Ask them for help by giving them a task that only they can perform. This will boost their commitment to the community, as you are asking for help. This is the same principle of psychology Benjamin Franklin used to turn haters into fans or that Amanda Palmer refers to when she says:
“Through the very act of asking people, I connected with them. And when you connect with them, people want to help you. It’s kind of counterintuitive for a lot of artists — they don’t want to ask for things. It’s not easy to ask. … Asking makes you vulnerable.”
5. A Proactive Approach to Coordinated Protests
When consumers call out companies en masse, it can be a chilling moment. Does the company capitulate and give in to their demands or does it press its autonomy and draw a line? Either way, people will pass judgement and the community professional is going to be in the line of fire at ground zero.
Arguments in life are rarely black and white. They become so by our own tendency to lay blame and make assumptions about the other side in the conflict. Community professionals are the best advocates for consumers because they are the people who have spent the most time listening to them. You can use this knowledge to aid the company in navigating complex issues. This article on user advocacy is also applicable to community work.
It’s also smart here to take a look at how offline protests occur and how they have been handled over time. Recent studies on both violent and peaceful protest have concluded that graded levels of moderation should occur during these times so that you do not create an “us versus them” mentality.
This mentality will completely erode any faith in your company. CityLab editor Eric Jaffe illustrates:
“Picture yourself on a bus with lots of strangers. Technically, you all share a common goal of reaching your destination safely. But you each have a social identity that doesn’t necessarily overlap: the old people, the commuters, the annoyingly loud teenagers. If the bus suddenly comes under attack, however, those various identities are united by a single goal: defend against the outside force. “You didn’t lose your identity,” writes Bell, “you gained a new one in reaction to a threat.”
Here’s where the militarization of local police becomes so problematic. Officers in full-on riot gear give all the individuals in a protest crowd a common enemy. It’s not that everyone in the protest crowd suddenly assumes the identity of a violent jerk—it’s that the many peaceful protestors feel a sort of kinship with the violent jerks against the aggressive police. Despite their differences, they’re united by a single goal: defend against the outside force.”
To sum up: Don’t be that “outside force.”
Self-Care is not Selfish
Communications in high-stress situations are difficult. It’s important during these times to not only care for your community, but to care for yourself.
No matter the outcome, focus on your character strengths. You deserve to feel good about yourself. This perspective will aid you as you move forward.
Another method of self-care would be reframing the situation. You may experience feelings of guilt over not being able to resolve the issue. You may have co-workers blaming you for things which you have no control over. Reframing allows you to focus in on the things which you can impact. Let go of what you cannot change. Chalk this up to a learning experience and embrace the challenge.
The simplest stress relief is this tip, which you can practice in any moment when needed. Mindfulness meditation focuses on the breath. When you begin to feel anxious, take a deep breath and focus on your breathing. Through this exercise, you will be able to control your breath and return to a calmer state. This will boost your ability to think in an emergency and lower your stress levels over time.