How should leaders respond to criticism in the Internet age?
“I know you get flamed by a lot of comments; how do you process that?” Aaron Billard, a pastor from St. John’s United Church in New Brunswick, asked me.
Leaders deal with criticism often, but the Internet has changed how and who criticizes them. How should they respond?
Here are ways I try to handle online critics:
Ignore them, if possible. As a writer, I should be doing things like putting my name on on Google Alert so that if anyone whispers about me on the Web, I’ll know. It’s all a part of “building my brand” or “constructing my platform.”
I understand the importance of this. Publishing houses have cut back their marketing departments and authors have to do their own publicity. But I’m a human before I’m a brand, and I want to keep it that way.
The people writing the comments are humans too. They forget how small the world is. They forget words sting. They don’t realize that I’m probably going to meet them, and they’re going to tell me how much they enjoyed my books. I’ve memorized the criticism, while they’ve completely forgotten about it.
So I learned to ignore some things. Reviews don’t eat me up if I never see them. If people want me to read their blogs, tweets or reviews, they’ll ask me to. I also ignore comments when I write for really big sites, like The Huffington Post.
As leaders, we don’t always have the luxury to ignore. If someone says something about our church community or institution, we need to engage. Our communities depend on it and people put more trust in leaders who interact well with social media. What are the steps of civil engagement?
Take your time. The beauty of the Internet is that it’s instantaneous. But you don’t have to respond to everything immediately. You can give yourself a 24-hour cooling-off period.
Do all of the things that give you perspective and help you to care for yourself: a walk or a bath or time with friends. Then go back to the comment. You’ll be in a better place to respond.
Friends don’t let friends drink and comment. Alcohol may relax you, but it probably won’t give you the perspective you need to respond appropriately.
Pray for them. It sounds obnoxiously spiritual, I know. But the words of Jesus do come in handy here. Attacks are often the indication of another’s wounds. There’s the atheist who has been cut off from her family or the man who hints at his ongoing depression. If people spend hours each night trolling and picking fights on the Internet, there’s a good chance something is wrong with them. They need our prayers.
Don’t forget the other readers. Imagine yourself in your living room, hosting a party. You get into a disagreement with a guest. The conversation has a different sort of flavor, because you’re aware of all the other people in your house.
It’s the same with the Internet. You’re not just talking to one commenter. The angrier the site gets, the more people it attracts. Always engage with love. Why? Is it because that nasty commenter deserved it? No. It’s because your integrity as a leader is at stake.
Walk away. There are people who simply will not let you have the last word. Each time they pop up, they leave some accusation or heated questions that you just have to respond to. If you have already answered a person a couple of times, you don’t need to keep going back.
I know a lot of people who invite the person to take it off-line or send a personal e-mail. I don’t do that any more. Perhaps it’s because I’m a woman and most people who attack me are men, but I don’t need mean stalker-types in my inbox. It makes me feel unsafe.
Ask other people to fight your fights. If you’re flailing all alone, it’s okay to ask a friend to help defend you. It’ll make you feel better that someone’s got your back. Be sure to help other people out when they’re being attacked too.
We are not only leaders in our churches and institutions, but we also model how to engage on the Internet. Social media sites are very young, and the norms on how to behave are still evolving. We can have a positive impact on forming those norms, if we learn how to comment wisely and prayerfully, by taking our time, remembering our readers and asking for support.
Carol Howard Merritt is pastor of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington DC and author of "Tribal Church" (Alban). She blogs at tribalchurch.org.