"We are always being watched.”
This concept is tough to conceive, but the truth of the matter is: As individuals and institutions, we are always being watched. Social media and other social platforms have magnified this concept to an entirely different level. Traditionally, from an institutional perspective, we have “watched” our patrons by means of individual program/event/facility evaluation, general surveys and surveillance videos, to name a few. We then take our findings, evaluate them and act accordingly. In this form of surveillance, the institution holds all the data or information and may choose what to share, if it chooses to share anything at all.
Thanks to modern technology, such as smart devices, paired with social media and other platforms, such as Yelp or Google, individuals are also able to regularly and publicly survey institutions. This can be a wonderful tool for park and recreation agencies, especially when agencies receive positive feedback and praise. After all, our goals and missions are to provide our constituents with positive and enjoyable leisure-time experiences.
But what happens when we receive negative feedback? It’s possible it has happened to many of us, and generally, it seems to come out of nowhere. I am not talking about the email that comes from an individual to one or several individuals in an organization, but about the Facebook comment (or review) that is posted for the entire world to see. How are we to manage, react to or respond in these situations? This is where the following story begins and can, perhaps, be viewed as a cautionary tale for navigating this era of person-to-institution surveillance.
A Social Media Lesson
Not too long ago, the team at the Hilton-Parma Parks & Recreation in Hilton, New York, decided to conduct a simple, lighthearted contest on Facebook. We asked people to help us choose our next Parks & Recreation Experience Guide cover photo by “liking” their favorite mocked-up cover. In our community, the cover of our brochure regularly features professionally taken photos of participants at our programs and events. When someone finds out they have made the cover, the excitement and aftermath are always special. In the Facebook post, we included four possible cover photos based on image quality and fit within the layout. Simple, innocent and fun, right? What could possibly go wrong?
Within an hour of posting the contest, we received our first comment. We expected it to say something like, “How fun” or “(insert tagged name) you made the Hilton-Parma Parks & Recreation cover photo contest!” Instead, it said: “How about some diversity?? Why so white (teardrop Emoji)?”
Our world stopped for a few anxiety-filled moments, as we viewed those seven words and emoji. And, to make matters worse, we had specifically asked people to “share” this post, so it caught the eyes of more people than the average post.
Once the initial shock wore off, we had to form a plan. One option was to take the post down, but doing so violates a person’s freedom of speech, so we decided to keep the post. The other options included privately reaching out to the individual, doing nothing or responding. In a world where exceptional customer service is associated with an immediate response time, we’ve adopted the 24-hour rule regarding disgruntled or controversial correspondence, so as not to let emotion or initial feelings cloud our judgment. In this case, it was necessary to formulate and disperse a well-thought-out response before anyone else replied to the initial comment. So, our response was as follows:
We are sorry you see this (post) this way, as we accept and welcome everyone…to us, we are all the same in one particular way; we come together to have fun….Our covers are chosen based on the quality of the photo and their surroundings, nothing more.
Done! Crisis averted.
Not quite. Later that day, the original individual responded to our statement and the situation began to spiral out of control. Several people began to interact, and, to our surprise, all their comments were in defense of the department. However, these comments were serious attacks on, and threats directed at, the individual who posted the original comment. Politics and race were thrown around in the conversations as well. This continued throughout the night, and, at every notification, I wanted to respond but feared adding fuel to an already large fire. Fortunately, by early morning, the comments died down and, by then, we had issued a statement expressing our disappointment with the reaction received from such an innocent Facebook post, calling for community togetherness, as opposed to division, and asking people to end the commentary.
In the aftermath, the individual who posted the initial comment privately messaged us to request a meeting. With some trepidation, we obliged, and at that meeting, the individual expressed the intent of the post. To provide a little background, our community is predominantly white. This individual is also white but explained that although our community may be majority white, photos predominantly featuring said majority may not provide a feeling of welcome to those in the minority. Their intent was not to imply that we should force anything, but to suggest a conscious awareness of diversity in our marketing efforts. We absolutely agree with the concept, as we want everyone to experience our services. This discussion changed the way we looked at our photos and what message they may project outside the obvious ones of fun and enjoyment. Our very next brochure cover featured three children of three different ethnicities enjoying one of our events.
An Opportunity to Learn and Grow
This situation presented several challenges, such as reacting to unfavorable social media comments, handling the tornado of undesirable conversation they created and receiving the feedback of an individual who did not agree with part of our operations. For the latter, we, sometimes, shut these doors or brush off such feedback, carrying on as we always have. Had we shut the door in this case, we may have never learned a valuable lesson.
In the end, this negative social media experience brought about some real good. It presented our team with the opportunity to learn and grow. Not every situation will produce such a positive outcome, but we believe we are more equipped to handle the next one, and I do not doubt there will be a “next one” (knock on wood).
The opportunity for individuals to share their opinions of us is increasing daily and across platforms we may or may not be aware of. Positive feedback is great, but we all know that a shared negative experience can be far more harmful than dozens or even hundreds of the favorable reviews. How many times have you reviewed a product or service and been turned off by a negative review even though there were many more positive ones?
Going forward, we must be willing to accept the surveillance of our institutions and ourselves by others. It is everywhere, and for parks and recreation, it is no different. If we recognize this, we can be prepared to handle challenging situations when they arise. It may not always be possible to make lemonade out of lemons, but it is possible to discover an opportunity to learn and grow.
Note: The author thanks Ananda Mitra, Ph.D., professor of Communication, Wake Forest University, in whose presentation, titled “You Are Being Watched: User Surveillance of Recreation Providers,” he was introduced to the concept of person-to-institution surveillance.
Thomas Venniro is the Director of Hilton-Parma Parks & Recreation.