Gino Desrosiers says a conversational tone is vital on social media, even when speaking on behalf of a government. (Photo: Claude Mathieu)
Social media has the power to connect, but the trolls always seem to be lurking, looking for ways to tear down any information that might be posted on a wall. It’s a challenge that can sideline virtually any message, no matter what the original intent may be.
“Our discussions that generate the most reactions are those where we talk about sharing the road,” says Gino Desrosiers, a media relations and social network community manager for the Société de l’Assurance Automobile du Québec (SAAQ). They’re the topics that quickly become emotional, too.
But Desrosiers’ work on the provincial transportation department’s social media pages has been cited as a textbook example of how to manage a crisis when it comes to keeping Facebook discussions civil and on track.
This was especially true when it came to posts about ways that trucks can interact with vulnerable road users like cyclists.
“My answers to comments were often very far from ‘public administration beige’. It was more direct, more colorful,” Desrosiers says, referring to the importance of giving social media managers the leeway to adopt a voice, and the ability to respond quickly as any discussions progress. The end result was a direct and respectful tone, but also a genuine interaction.
It often means posting comments in the first person, rather than adopting a distant and bureaucratic “we”.
Those who participate in the online conversations are often able to tame each other, he says, but there is still the need for a referee.
“For instance, a truck driver will tell about his reality, and a cyclist navigating city streets among trucks will tell his side of the story. I sometimes act as a referee to make sure the debate remains constructive and I will contribute by bringing additional examples, points of regulations, etc.”
It’s the same approach that he established while training to become a journalist, and applied while working in a media relations role before he added social media tasks to the job responsibilities in 2013.
Know your audience
According to Desrosiers, those who manage social media discussions always need to be aware that there’s a silent audience witnessing the conversations. For every closeminded troll, there are still those who absorb the information without typing a word. And the otherwise silent group can still share the details with tens or hundreds of their own friends and followers, he says.
Another piece of advice from his experience is to keep the lines of communication open, even if you don’t have an answer to offer at first. Saying you’re going to verify details with an expert, that a given topic involves a little research before an official answer can be released, shows the user that they aren’t forgotten.
“People are smart enough to understand when you’re transparent with them,” Desrosiers says.
Clear facts can be particularly important when opening discussions with the trucking industry, too.
“We’re extra careful at being clear and concise when discussing regulations or regulatory changes because there can be [financial and safety] impacts. In trucking, a couple of centimeters or kilos can make a difference, so we don’t want to mislead anybody.”
Rumors that relate to regulations can certainly take on a life of their own in the social media space if they’re left unchecked.
“We need to act fast to end any false rumor by answering questions as clearly as possible — especially if a regulation involves equipment purchases,” he says. The SAAQ has kept that in mind when managing comments about issues ranging from load securement to the legalization of recreational marijuana.
A two-way street
Remarks on social media can even lead to changes in communication strategies. The SAAQ uses them to identify whether messages were clear enough, or if they needed fine tuning.
Even casual posts about frustrations with those who fail to use their turn signals can inspire the regulator to establish messages to reinforce different ideas.
“Our goal is that the communication flows in both directions. We give information but the feedback we get can help us carry the message differently,” he says.
The reward comes in the form of online friends who form a connection with the professional communicators. He recognizes those who return to the Facebook page to offer comments and thoughts.
An open mind helps to demonstrate empathy when it’s needed, too. Maybe it’s the victim of a collision who needs some guidance when filing an insurance claim.
“The people who write to us live real stories,” Desrosiers says.
And they share those stories as followers and friends.