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In January 2013, American fast food giant Taco Bell incurred the wrath of its customers when a picture of one of its employees licking several yet-to-be-used taco shells emerged on social media. Taco Bell’s response was to post a press release to its website, instead of the Facebook page where the photo appeared, and hours later, after a slew of negative comments, the company disabled them, making it impossible for users to air their grievances on its branded page.

This was widely considered by commentators at the time as a poor decision. In a blog post, crisis management consultant Melissa Agnes described herself as being ‘totally disappointed’ by what she deemed to be Taco Bell’s attempts to ‘disable their customers’ voice’.

Two years later, Agnes maintains her view that comments should not be disabled in the event of a crisis, though she admits there are sometimes exceptions. For example, in a period where online abuse is not symptomatic of the highly-charged emotions that come with a crisis, then it may be necessary to turn off comments to stop third party stakeholders being affected by negative comments that are not appropriate to the situation. When there is a crisis, however, Agnes believes that it is too late to make that decision.

‘When you’re in a crisis is the not the time to consider [turning off comments]. In the heat of the moment, you’re rash, you’re emotional, you’re human,’ she says. ‘Think about it beforehand. Develop criteria with which to judge your response by.’

Agnes goes further, saying that turning off comments in the middle of a crisis situation is a ‘knee jerk reaction’ which shows that a company is ‘underprepared’. Turning off comments can even make the impact of a crisis last longer, showing that companies are not willing to engage or at worst ‘telling people that We don’t want you to have a voice’.

Allowing the public to comment on Facebook has changed the ways that brand communicate with and learn about their customers.

For Agnes, turning off this function means that companies are failing to see a crisis ‘as an opportunity to get to know your customers.’ Social media is a platform intended for people to air their views.

Andrew Williams, senior director at FTI Consulting, agrees. He argues that social media has helped foster a connection between consumer and brand that is not only transactional, but emotional as well. Like Agnes, he believes that turning off comments is turning down an opportunity to understand your customers.

‘You should listen to what people are saying,’ he says. ‘You can use that to inform what your communications plan should be, so that you can respond the right way.’

Anthony Hua, social media manager at retail bank TSB, also notes that ‘communications on Facebook are usually a two-way process’.

‘It is not our policy to turn off or delete Facebook comments just because they are negative,’ he adds. ‘Negative comments give us an opportunity to turn things round for a customer; at worst, their feedback will allow us to improve our service; at best, they can even become advocates.’

Georgina Wald, communications manager at London brewer Fuller’s, acknowledges that social media can be a useful tool in understanding public perception. ‘Feedback is hugely important to any business and social media is brilliant at giving instant feedback,’ she says, while adding that there are rare occasions where disabling comments can be the right course of action.

For example, if there has been a situation where the repercussions are very painful for those involved, turning off comments can protect them from hurtful comments or even jokes made in poor taste, particularly from people who have not been directly involved with the incident.

Similarly, disabling the comments function can be useful for communications teams who do not have the resource to firefight negativity or targeted abuse on their social media pages. The team at Fuller’s is made up of three people, which means that prioritising actions can be extremely important.

Wald states that turning off comments can be useful so that the team can focus on getting information out, rather than being distracted by users’ diatribes.

‘You can’t please all the people all of the time,’ says Wald. ‘Sometimes you do have to prioritise.’

For a brand like Fuller’s, the impact of online abuse can not only affect the communications team itself but also those on the front line, such as pub managers. All of Fuller’s pubs have managed Facebook accounts and, on occasion, an incident that affects one leads the company to turn off comments on that pub’s account in order to give the staff space to breathe and regroup.

‘You’re still dealing with humans and humans have feelings,’ reminds Wald.

Whilst negativity can be a more common occurrence for consumer-facing brands, however, online abuse itself is a different matter entirely. Like Agnes, both Hua and Wald believe that in the instance of abuse, social media needs to be monitored and its stakeholders protected.

‘Negativity is about someone expressing dissatisfaction with something you’ve done, but it’s still conversational and your brand can do something about it to address the person,’ says Hua. ‘Abuse, however, is likely to be one-way and not constructive at all. Just as you would not expect a shopkeeper to serve someone who swears at them and is overly aggressive, brands on Facebook don’t need to do that either. Truly abusive comments can expect to be deleted.’

Deleting comments, as well as stopping them altogether, can be a double-edged sword for an organisation. On the one hand, they protect their reputation from defamation or attacks while on the other they are seen to be censoring their customers. As a result many brands, such as Adidas and insurance company Hiscox, have developed a set of House Rules for social media, which demonstrate how best to communicate to a brand on Facebook and what will not be tolerated on their pages.

‘Social media house rules are just part of good housekeeping,’ says Abi Clark, communications manager at Hiscox. ‘When your home gets a bit grubby, you want to sweep out the bad bits. It’s the same with social media, where those bad bits are what we define as being anything untoward that someone might post on our pages – whether that’s abusive or bullying behaviour, or giving away personal information on a public forum.

‘We’ve been lucky enough not to have experienced many issues likes this but we are prepared to remove offensive messages if we need to and these house rules make that clear. If you want to come play at our house, you’ve got to respect others.’

‘It’s really important to have those house rules,’ agrees Agnes, saying that organisations that link to them from the start are able to explain more rationally why comments have been deleted. ‘It saves you from looking as though you’re trying to silence customers.’

But deleting or disabling comments can also be futile in most cases, according to Agnes. ‘Shutting off comments is not going to stop people from having comments.’

What companies will find, she says, is that people with genuine grievances will go back to their own pages and post their comments, where brands can’t moderate or assuage them. By allowing comments, organisations can monitor them and catch rumours and unfair attacks early, ideally nipping them in the bud.

Williams concurs, saying that ‘people are going to be talking about your brand anyway’ regardless of whether you allow them to comment on your pages. ‘It’s like putting a dam in a river,’ he says. ‘The water has to go somewhere.’

Williams compares turning off comments to ‘unplugging the phone, taking your email off the website or shutting the door in a customer’s face’, adding: ‘You wouldn’t shut a door in a customer’s face in the middle of a conversation.’

Hua also sees other ways around negative comments that don’t involve turning off comments in a crisis. ‘If there is a lot of negativity around a common issue, one thing to consider doing is to address that issue in a new, proactive status update,’ he explains.

‘This would show your followers that you’re taking an issue seriously, it may help stem further negativity (as they have seen your response) and it would save you time posting replies to everybody, which may not be practical or possible, depending on the situation.’

‘The best approach is to communicate as often as you can,’ says Williams. ‘If there’s a storm going down, you might not be able to reply to every comment because you might not have all the information, but if you can post and update saying ‘We’re looking into it,’ at least people know if you’re responding.’

‘There are other ways to deal with this sort of thing than turning off comments,’ agrees Agnes. She cites the example of the social media team behind the Sochi Olympics pages, who came under fire from an activist group on their Facebook page. Though at the time they attempted to delete comments as they appeared, in retrospect, they now believe they should have let it happen and worked through it, instead of fighting a losing battle and drawing out the process.

For Wald, too, there is no definitive answer on how to deal with comments. ‘I don’t think you can ever really write a crisis manual,’ she says. ‘If you can ever prepare for a crisis, you’re probably expecting it. And then you should be dealing with that in another part of the business.’

If you do decide to go offline, however, the consensus is you should get back up as soon as possible. Otherwise, who knows what sort of feedback you could be missing out on.