Public officials cannot block people from posting on their social media accounts, according to a recent court decision.
Phyllis Randall, chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors in Virginia, blocked resident Brian Davison from posting on her Facebook Page and deleted his comment in July of 2016 after Davison accused the local school board of corruption and conflict of interests. Although the ban lasted just a day, Davison filed suit, saying his First Amending rights were violated.
U.S. District Court Judge James C. Cacheris in Alexandria, VA., agreed with Davison. Randall had committed “a cardinal sin under the First Amendment,” Cacheris wrote in the decision. Randall’s Facebook page served as a public forum. Randall had created the Facebook page to solicit public input and had encouraged residents to submit comments, including criticisms, the judge noted.
The Real Impact of the Ruling
Most of the commentary following the decision focused on whether the ruling would impact President Trump who routinely blocks critics from his Twitter account. Opinions varied. Internet law expert Venkat Balasubramani said the decision “is equally applicable” to Trump’s Twitter account, but Slate writer Mark Joseph Stern pointed out that Trump’s Twitter feed could be considered a private forum, not a government project.
In any case, lower-level public officials and their PR managers will feel immediate impact from the court ruling.
The case sets a precedent for Facebook and Twitter accounts of public officials. Public relations pros managing the accounts will need to refrain from blocking critics or deleting their comments and advise their bosses not to block constituents who offend them.
Effect of Ruling on Business Accounts
The ruling does not apply to private companies. Still, marketers recommend against blocking critics. Customer service best practices call for brands to attempt to resolve complaints, promptly apologize for inconveniences, and address complaints via private channels like email or Twitter direct message. Above all, keep your cool and remain professional. Simply responding and trying to help often diffuses anger. Blocking legitimate activists will backfire. Instead, prepare valid responses to their criticisms.
However, postings by trolls call for a different response than complaints from disgruntled customers. Trolls lack valid complaints. They want attention and intentionally seek to rouse anger with deliberately inflammatory comments that are often abusive, racist and obscene. They may attack other customers, your staff as well as the company.
Social media managers can follow the advice “Don’t feed the trolls.” They may go away if ignored since they seek attention.
Some brands, like Wendy’s, engage humorously with less vicious trolls. But keep in mind that your replies will be retweeted and will become screenshots and shared widely.
Banning trolls and deleting their comments is a legitimate response. Their comments offend real customers and detract from valid customer service issues. They may argue that they were “censored” and that you violated their First Amendment rights. But freedom of speech doesn’t protect slanderous graffiti on your store front.
“Remember, the social space you’re creating is a party, and you’re the hos,” writes social media expert Peter Friedman in Adweek. “Whether it’s a lively “swinging from the chandeliers” bash, an amiable coffee klatch or a sedate conversation over a game of chess, your customers and fans deserve to feel comfortable and safe from abuse.”
Bottom Line: A recent court decision impacts community relations and PR professionals working for public officials. It’s imperative for public officials and their staff to know how to handle critics even when they feel offended by their attacks.