Handling Negative and Inappropriate Comments on your Website

Posted at June 3, 2011

Churches are frequently hesitant to create true community out of fear. Fear that the wrong stuff will get posted on your site. And you know what? Their fears are well-placed. Find any Website that has had open comments or forums for a while, and I’ll show you someone who has faced inappropriate comments or spam.

How Bad Can it Get?

Perhaps our most memorable example of this came from a church in Maryland, about 2 years ago. With our help, they set up a forum on their Website to handle prayer requests, help requests, and other general discussion. It was moderated, though not frequently enough (as you’re about to find out). We received a frantic call from the Website volunteer several months later, saying “you’ve got to help me! There is all kinds of lewd and inappropriate stuff on our Website! Pornographic photos too!” That got our attention.

We quickly cleaned up the mess and showed the client how to tighten up her security on the forums. We also reminded her of our original recommendation, which was to make sure that at least 2 people on their Web team were receiving Email alerts of new posts, so that they could act quickly when something like this happened again.

Sadly they did not heed our advice and it happened at least two more times. At least once, the pastor actually was the one who found it, and called the web team to describe what he saw…yikes!

Can you imagine anything worse than an unchurched person, genuinely seeking out a church, stumbling on your church’s Website and finding X-rated content?

The client later told us, “I’m ready to do whatever it takes to make this go away. I never want to hear my pastor say the V-word again!”

Tips to Prevent the Worst

If you run a blog, message board, forum, Facebook page, or any channel that allows two-way conversation with your audience, you must carefully consider how to handle “problem children” before they visit. Having a policy in place will save you lots of headaches later.

1. Have a clear policy on acceptable comments. If you have a clear policy, then you are not obligated to publish every comment. You are allowed to edit or delete them, if you say that you will do so. The best resource for developing a comments policy is from our friend Michael Hyatt; read it and take action!

2. Use a tool that allows you to moderate submissions. Most blog platforms let you decide how strict you want to be. You can embargo all comments until you physically approve them, for instance. This gives you the most control, but it can stifle the free-flowing conversation if you don’t act in a timely manner. On the other hand, you can allow any comments to be posted, but if an inappropriate comment surfaces then you take action. Action might include deleting the comment, or even banning the user permanently.

3. Visit your own site often. Be sure that you are checking for comments, submissions, or replies that may have slipped by your moderation system. It does happen.

4. Consider using CAPTCHA to verify humans are posting comments. Most spam on blogs is caused by “bots”, or automated tools that post lots of comments on lots of blogs. You can block these bots by requiring the user to type a series of letters or numbers shown on the screen.

5. Allow constructive criticism; don’t allow reckless trolls.  If you delete anything negative or critical, it will tend to discourage honest conversation. Rather than quash all debate, it’s normally better to allow honest dialogue while requiring everyone to stay honest and civil. For a good matrix you can use to distinguish the good, bad, and the ugly, check out another great post from Michael Hyatt on the subject of Friends, Critics and Trolls.

How have you dealt with this at your church? If you have a good policy or creative way to keep your site clean (and yet still foster two-way conversation), please let the rest of us know about it!

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