The Comment Conundrum

Interactive Internet capabilities have given us a host of new tools to use in our communication sandbox. For good reason, one in particular is receiving more attention. But it may harm the reputation of your schools and staff more than it helps.

What is this more recent addition? Comment Sections.

Comment sections on school district web sites and e-newsletters are starting to pop up as some districts see using them as a proactive sign that will lead to more engagement and transparency. After all, that’s what we all preach is at the heart of a great communication program, isn’t it?

Journalists have taken the lead in this arena and most of us can attest that we often go to the comment section after scanning the gist of an article to see what others say about what we’ve just read … especially if it’s about our schools.

The Minnesota News Council, a long-respected “watch-dog” group of journalists and publishers, discussed comment sections at its forum last fall.

Just a few of the sound bites from that session included:

  • The Minnesota Star Tribune receives 15,000 comments to its online stories every month. Others agreed that the interactive approach is becoming one of the more popular features of their e-outlets.
  • One media reporter characterized comment sections as “nothing more than a cesspool of hate, personal attacks and other sentiments that aren’t worth the electrons they occupy.” I think we know where he stands.
  • They noted that 4 to 5% of all online users comment online and many commenters are active and repeat users.
  • Some editors worry that the commenters will start attacking their sources and the editors want to protect them from these attacks.
  • Estimates by a Star Tribune editor noted that only about 10% of the comments are outright offensive, 40% present no problem to screeners, but the other 50% fall into a “gray area.”
  • Some monitor comments before publishing them, others require commenters to give an e-mail and a real name, while others allow commenters to be anonymous. With large volumes, the verification process is virtually impossible.
  • An editor from the St. Cloud Times noted that there is an expectation that what you say online is anonymous; people will say things, both good and bad, that they may not feel comfortable saying if they had to sign their name on it. One former reporter who now is a college professor offered that anonymity in comments leads to “the lowering of civil discourse in society.”

Should you offer comment sections in your own newsletters or web sites?

First, you need to go into a planning discussion with your eyes wide open.

Consider these issues:

  • Why do you want to start using this feature? What is missing from your current feedback and listening devices? Will they be improved by adding a comment section? Do you currently have a survey program that will give you a more representative response from your community? Do you already meet regularly with key opinion leaders and seek their input on current and future issues?
  • Is this feature is a good fit for your community? Or are you planted in a volatile and political community with a wave of activists who have the potential to dominate and spread their negative agenda on school issues? If using this tool will only give more visibility to the “usual suspects” who have already registered their thoughts with the school district, it may not be worth using.
  • Is this feature a fit for your School Board? Or is your Board seen as overly focused on pleasing the “squeaky wheel element” in your community?
  • Will you require confirmation of commenters’ identity and post their names with the story?
  • Do you have time to monitor and confirm submissions if this new feature becomes popular in your community? (One NSPRA member recently criticized one of our Power Hour Sessions on social marketing because we did not warn people about the time these ventures really take. The critic noted that her office, “Does not have the staff to monitor, so we won’t go there; we don’t like to work on Sunday afternoons/and/or at stoplights to monitor social media.”)
  • Will you limit topics for comments to key school community issues? Some newspapers have limited their topics for comment because dealing with race and religion has created more problems and has polarized the community.

Years ago, the late Pat Jackson, a national PR guru, commented that instant polls were as close to historic “mob-rule lynchings” as you could get. And now we see that some of these new tools offer some of the elements of that era as well.

Another less-than-shining example is that a few years ago a school system sought assistance about what to cut in the school district’s budget. After holding a series of forums and online offerings, one of the repeated items people told officials to cut was the Superintendent’s expensive car allowance. But, in fact, the Superintendent DID NOT HAVE A CAR ALLOWANCE.

Now, it was good that this piece of misinformation surfaced so it could be corrected. But it also makes you wonder how many hundreds of others saw the car allowance accusation, and ran with it in their circle of friends and community activists. We all need to remember Mark Twain’s advice, “A lie can travel around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

But many positive examples of using newer web devices have bolstered communication for school districts. One shining example is a past NSPRA Golden Achievement Award-winning web blog entitled, Heard It Through the Grapevine, by the Shenendehowa Central Schools in Clifton Park, New York. Now a few years old, the tactic was started to provide people with a place to get answers to questions and to address rumors and wild claims that had no basis in fact. Not all questions are posted if they attack individuals, but the system is working well enough that the district receives some 250 questions a month.

So there is Always Something to consider when exploring new e-communication tools for your schools. Just do your homework. See how these tools will benefit your community and your schools. Balance the benefit with the capacity you have to execute this type of ongoing feedback solution.

NSPRA would love to hear your thoughts about these features. Just comment below.

Rich Bagin, APR, NSPRA executive director

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