9 February 2017

Social media is a boon to clubs for connecting with members, but it also creates new challenges when things go wrong.

Facebook, Twitter and other platforms give unhappy patrons new mouthpieces to vent their spleen. All it takes is a few clicks of a smart phone to complain about poor service or other grievances.

Unlike an angry letter to the board, these new media allow complaints to be aired to a much broader audience or even go viral. Cameras also mean members can share picture evidence with the world - whether it's a trivial issue like a sub-par chicken parma, or serious compliance breaches like photos of an unsafe area in the club or a small child sitting at the bar.

So how to deal with it?

Respond promptly with a friendly, personalised invitation to contact management with more detail so that the club can address the concerns.  Undertake to respond to the more detailed compliant within a specified period of time.  This not only demonstrates engagement with the issue, but also encourages the member to take the conversation offline so it doesn't escalate.

Even if the complaint is inflammatory, avoid getting into a Twitter was or Facebook tit-for-tat.  If a clear misstatement has been made, simply correction or clarification may be appropriate, but keep it professional and unemotional.

And if something has in fact gone wrong, a public expression of regret and offering solutions shows the club is acting in good faith and responds to its members' needs.  To see this in practice, check out the social media accounts of companies like Woolworths, which deal with every complaint quickly and in good humour.  Of course, clubs are smaller in scale than supermarket giants - but the practice isn't hard to reproduce.

It's also worth updating your club's complaints-handling policy to give clear guidance to staff and committee on the process for responding to complaints on social media.  You should also let members know the best way to notify your club if they have a grievance.  Draw clear lines about who represents the club on social media.  If a committee member or employee weighs in on an online debate, it can be unclear whether they're speaking as an individual or on behalf of the club.

Clubs might consider introducing a specific social media policy or by-law for members, such as:

Any slanderous, defamatory or discriminatory comments made via Social Media (written or otherwise), that are about the club, its business activities or its associated parties are considered public, and may result in loss of membership, banning for the club, or any other disciplinary action deemed appropriate.

Social Media is not to be used in a manner that constitutes bullying, harassment or discrimination of anyone associated with the club, including (but not limited to) employees, members and guests.

With the pervasiveness of social media, clubs have a right to defend their reputations.  When considering disciplinary action, however, committees should tread carefully.  Consider:

  • Do you have jurisdiction? If someone has bad-mouthed your club on Twitter, or libelled committee members or management on the club's Facebook page or a blog, it should be clear cut.  But if it's a private message between two people, or a member has made unrelated personal statements about non-club issues, the club may not have the right to discipline them.
  • Did they truly defame the club?  Members do have a right to raise concerns: minor quibbles over bad service don't really amount to bringing the club into disrepute.  Avoid being heavy-handed and always ensure you treat each member equally.
  • Do you have evidence?  Every disciplinary hearing should involve the presentation of materials that demonstrate how the member breached the club's constitution.  Posts can easily be deleted, so be sure to take screenshots before they disappear into the ether.

When dealing with social media-related complaints or disciplinary breaches, don't forget to consult the clubs policy, guidelines and constitution, which give your club step-by-step guides to resolving challenges with minimal risk and fuss.

(SOURCE: Emily Perry, ClubsNSW Policy Advisor, ClubLIFE Dec 2016)

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