Keep you and your team safe from social media harm and online abuse

September 30, 2019

Have you ever considered the impact of social media on those who monitor it every day for their job? 

You may think you’re in a relatively low risk area of the public sector and that it only applies to the emergency services, but everyone who has to deal with online chatter from the public would have experienced a whole range of online communications that range from the downright strange right through to the disgusting, abusive and illegal.

It is a given that social media is now used by the public sector for all sorts of good reasons, but there are some insidious side effects from dealing with the public every day online. It doesn’t just affect emergency workers. It also touches upon everyone who needs to engage with the public from our contact centres to our media offices. 

Communications specialist Leanne Ehren and MusterPoint CEO Christine Townsend share some of the painful experiences they have had and some top pointers on how to support your colleagues who deal with social.

MusterPoint CEO Christine Townsend experienced her first full on effects of dealing with social media for the police after the London riots changed the way the police managed communication. “I was constantly reading about how people were going to kill the police, torch their homes and cars. The vitriol was so harsh and at times, too much. I would go home and it would just go around and around in my head. To this day, I still have nightmares about some of the descriptions of violence I read.”

It didn’t stop there as she was also seeing constant abuse, complaints and harrowing descriptions of crimes come through to the force Facebook page.  “I just was at the point where I couldn’t even stand looking at the inbox every morning. I used to be an emergency call taker, but for some reason it was worse seeing it in black, white and glorious technicolour, with sound. As someone in the media team with relatively low exposure to such images, it was a shock to me to have such a window on the world.”

This isn't uncommon as many people managing social media know. It's well documented that the effects on those using it in their daily job are being impacted by harmful content.

Leanne Ehren has worked in comms in both the public and private sector, including in the emergency services and other public-facing, frontline-centric and operational environments. Her experiences of working as a communicator on the frontline and managing teams that communicate in this world has led her to also being a champion for wellbeing amongst communications professionals. 

“We are the frontline, and sometimes that can be forgotten. Often comms officers and customer service professionals managing social media accounts can be the first to see negative comments, be the first to experience the trolling of councils, and it can often feel personal.

“Colleagues out in the field - whether they are fixing a water main or trying to help a customer track down lost baggage - are trained, equipped and are expected to encounter negative public engagement. As communication professionals, this is something our role has evolved into over the past decade. The person who once started out as a media officer is now the one responding to public complaints, whilst also trying to promote a fun and engaging video about bin collections. The role for us has changed and it is important we recognise how we can better look after our teams to ensure they are equipped and supported.”

In crisis situations, communities now turn to social media for answers, Leanne explains. “We now are expected to be there 24/7, whatever industry we work in, to share the narrative, explain to board members what people are saying and also litmus test where brand reputation is at. To do that, we can see a lot of negative - but also a lot of positive. It’s important therefore that as teams, we put measures in place to have rotas, manage negative and positive content, and know when to switch off to the noise. We’re the humans that take on the battle with keyboard warriors - we need our rest and recovery (R & R) too.”

So, what are you doing about it? Do you have safeguards in place? Do you fully understand the risks? We try to give a few pointers on how you can be more aware and supportive in this ever changing and challenging online environment.

Have a schedule and stick to it

Everyone needs a break and it’s crucial that people who are constantly dealing with negativity, rudeness and abuse. Self care is vital and so you need to feel you can ask for a break, but management should also be supportive of this. Try to work out a rota for your team. If you're a solo communicator, make sure you take a break. We all know it can be addictive, so ensure you practice a mindful approach to stepping away and switching off.

Just because you’re reading things online, the effects on our wellbeing are just as harmful - if not more - as when said in person. It’s crucial to take your coworker seriously if they say they need a break. Even more so if they don’t say they need a break but are showing signs of things affecting them. 

Check in for personal issues

Are you aware of any triggers that you or your coworker might have? If so, be aware of them and take some space if they surface. It's vital to look for any change in behaviour and be aware that just because an issue might not upset you, it could have a real impact on the person you're sitting next to. What may affect you may not affect others and vice versa. Never, ever diminish what may have affected someone even if to you it may seem insignificant.

It is everyone’s responsibility to look out for our coworkers and that includes ensuring that the stuff they have to deal with on social media day in day out does not cause them harm. It's very easy to fall into the trap of 'toughing it out' - especially when working in the emergency services, but it's vital to be able to discuss your issues and have them taken seriously.

Apply offline processes to online

Bullying and harassment is the same if it’s online or in person. Therefore if you see it happening online, make sure you deal with it in the same way as you would if it were in a workplace setting. There have been many cases of online bullying in the workplace, with people finding they are being discussed negatively on Facebook by colleagues. Unfortunately, it's rarely dealt with proactively because it's online and not in the workplace. Consistency and reliability are good leadership skills, and what happens outside of work online can dramatically impact the workplace. The lines between personal and professional are blurred more than ever due to social media, so take this into consideration in the workplace and ensure the correct support mechanisms are in place for everyone.

Make sure you can’t easily be found online

So many public sector workers are now very open about what they do online. Some argue that this public engagement is simply over sharing that puts them at risk. Knowing the risks is crucial and applying this to your online life is just as important as your ‘real’ life.

‘Jigsaw reporting’ is a common term in the media but it can also apply in the public - essentially it’s people putting together enough information they find online to be able to locate - and quite often threaten - the person in real life. Be sure to do things like;

  • Turn of your location when posting
  • Check the background when you post images
  • Don’t post pictures of your home or personal vehicle
  • Give away your shift pattern or working habits
  • Post pictures of your family

It’s a personal choice about how much you share online, but be mindful that there are people who can find out more about you than you realise. Just be aware that nothing is ever as it seems online.

Have clear procedures for evidence

Police officers are trained as a given on how to handle evidence. Civilian staff, people who aren’t in the police are not. Does your team know how to handle digital evidence sufficiently enough to ensure that if there is a threat to their life or they see anything that constitutes a crime they can capture that evidence? Make sure there is something in place that supports them in knowing what to do. It doesn't take much to ensure you have a policy in place and the training to support that. This is part of the bigger picture of duty of care for your team.

Be clear about what happens if you see posts from vulnerable people

There is not a public sector organisation in the world that hasn’t had to deal with a vulnerable person. Do you know what your policy is if someone monitoring your social media sees someone threatening to self harm? What if they see evidence of abuse or threatening behaviour to another person? It’s unfair to leave people who you work with in a vulnerable position themselves by not providing the safety mechanisms to deal with seeing such things.

Ensure you have a triage system and a clear reporting procedure. It is unfair to expect anyone to save the life of someone who is threatening to commit suicide online when they have no support in place to do so. It is the duty of care of the supervisor and the organisation they work for.

Help build healthy boundaries

It’s so easy to just check in quickly as you’re sat there at home. It’s addictive, we all know that - the next like, share or thumbs up on something you posted is sometimes too tempting to leave at work. That’s why the importance of boundaries is so important. Do you have an agreement in place that sets out when you will and won’t check your work-related social media feeds? What are the expectations of the team? Is there an audit trail for seeing who is accessing your corporate social accounts? You need to be able to evidence this for everyone's safety and wellbeing.

Dan Slee recently wrote an article about a new tool to combat online abuse, which is well worth a read. You can read more here. TROLL HELP: There’s a new download to help combat targeted online abuse and it’s really good...undefined

Leanne is a communication professional, specialising in crisis comms, operational employee engagement and mental health and wellbeing in the communication sector. She currently leads a comms team at Anglian Water’s Water Services business unit. Find her on LinkedIn or Twitter @leanneehren 

Christine Townsend is the CEO and founder of MusterPoint. She worked in policing and central government as a communications specialist as well as serving as a volunteer coastguard and police officer. Connect with her on LinkedIn.



MusterPoint is a communication and social media management platform built for the public sector, emergency services and regulated industries. Find out more about how MusterPoint can help you.

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