Facts above the fray

"​Don't feed the trolls" goes the conventional advice. But not every critic is a troll determined to provoke and distract. What about residents on Facebook who genuinely want to communicate or reporters who must pose pointed questions to city officials?

Responding constructively is part of the privilege of serving the public. But sometimes that public criticism or speculation — whether posted on social media or presented during a city council meeting — isn't grounded in facts. What then?

In the City of North Charleston, city staff sometimes has a public social media exchange with someone who's looking to debate.

"I've gone back and forth if it's needed," said Ryan Johnson, the city's public relations/economic development director. But it's important to stay true to the goal of setting the public record straight instead of trying to best a particular individual.

"On the internet, you never change anyone's mind. You can go post something on Facebook now, and you'll have the same people disagree with it until the cows come home," Johnson said during a recent Risk Management Service training event. "But I think you should address it with accurate information, and other people will see it for what it is."

The same goes for people who rise to speak during the public comment period of a North Charleston City Council meeting — sometimes toting graphs, percentages and unverified data.

"Nobody in this day and age is going to go fact check it if you're just some guy giving a public comment," said Johnson.

Well, nobody, that is, except the city.

"We've fact checked people giving public comments either at the next meeting or while they're on the podium," he said. Typically a staff member then gives the correct information instead of an elected official, whose comments may be perceived as political.

The debate climate is different at the Orangeburg Department of Public Utilities, where residents often defend the department on its own Facebook page to correct misinformation or address criticism posted by others.

"While there are those customers whose frustration sometimes get the best of them in the form of negative social media posts, DPU has found that our customers can be our best defenders," said Randy Etters, key accounts manager for the Orangeburg DPU.

Besides, he said, "We find that a protracted back and forth only serves to give a perceived credibility to the individual who is being negative."

Preventing false information from spreading is also crucial after a tragedy.

For Paul Vance, who served as the official spokesperson after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, rumor control helped protect the innocent, kept the public informed and preserved efforts to build a criminal case.

"The only way I know how to control it is by letting questions be asked," said Vance during a joint training event put on by the Municipal Association and the Public Relations Society of America last fall. He recently retired from the Connecticut State Police.

"I needed to know what they (reporters) were looking at, what they were searching for, so I could do some rumor control," he said.

During one press conference, a reporter raised his hand to ask Vance to confirm the name of the gunman.

"He thought he had the name of the shooter," said Vance. The reporter announced the shooter's brother's name.

"I stopped him in his tracks," he recalled.