March 6, 2013 / Spring 2013 / Staff Management

Steel your staff for criticism

Written by Elizabeth Braden, CJE

Students with a gripe about the yearbook will still grumble in the halls with their friends. Now, they have an additional avenue to vent – Facebook and other social media.

Robyn Fisher, adviser at Yelm High School in Yelm, Wash., said her 2012 yearbook and newspaper staffs received more criticism than in the past, much of it online, even though the book was one of their better volumes.

“Kids are putting comments on Facebook they would never say to a person’s face,” Fisher said.

Facebook is blocked at Yelm, and the staff’s Facebook account is used mostly for sending out information about things like buying the book. But students posted negative comments there.

Fisher said at the beginning of the school year she discusses feedback the staff may receive, and reminds them again at the end of the year. She tells them they need to “thicken their skin.” She has her staff members practice out loud a ready response to people who approach them with a criticism of the book: “I’m really sorry that happened. We worked hard on the book.”

Jim McCrossen, adviser at Blue Valley Northwest High School in Overland Park, Kan., said learning how to deal with criticism is one of the more valuable skills students learn in a publications class.

“We talk quite a bit at the beginning of the year about creating a book that tells the history of our school year and looks good doing so. I prepare them for the fact that not everyone is going to like it,” McCrossen said.

“We have had critiques that were not pleasant to read, but the students know that is part of the deal and that we should listen and learn, if we can, and just be satisfied that any complaint or nasty criticism we have ever received is from one or two people — which leaves 1,548 people happy with what we have done,” McCrossen said.

“We do from time to time have criticism – usually word of mouth or face to face with a staff member.  I always tell the students to tell the person to come see me so I can either help address the concern in future books or try and explain our decisions,” Lynn Bare, adviser at Southern Alamance High School in Graham, N.C., said.

“This year I actually have two students who took yearbook because they didn’t like last year’s book and they wanted to help make a better book.  That is what I hope for, that those who aren’t satisfied will join the team and improve the product,” Bare said.

Sorting through criticism

Not all criticism is bad. Constructive feedback from your audience can help you create a better yearbook. Staffs need to learn to weed through the comments to find honest concerns from readers that may improve their work. The tips here are from “Teaching Students to Accept Criticism” from teaching.monster.com, and “95 Tips for Handling Criticism Online and Offline” from carolroth.com, rewritten to apply to yearbook.

When you get a comment about your yearbook, listen to it without interrupting, or read it several times. Do not get defensive. You want to make sure you understand what the concern is. Think about every word and see what you can take away from it.

1. Does the statement appear to be more of a personal attack against a staff member? Consider giving it to the administration.

2. Is it a general statement? Can you still glean anything from it? For example, if someone wrote, “The yearbook stinks,” you may just have to ignore it. But maybe if a student wrote, “Your yearbook stinks,” you might ask yourself why this student thinks the yearbook belongs to the staff and not the entire school.

3. Does the statement mention something specific? “I think it’s dumb that the club photos are so small.” “We get our pictures taken in September, and we don’t get the book until the next August.” These are legitimate comments from readers who do not understand how yearbooks are created.

When someone approaches you with a complaint or negative comment, one or more of these responses may help:

  • Offer an apology.
  • Give them a brief explanation of how the situation occurred, if needed.
  • Tell them how you can make the situation better, 
if you can.
  • If you cannot provide an explanation or answer, tell them you will get back to them. This may be a good reply if you need some time to think.

The criticism from texts and social media can be handled in a similar manner. Read and reread it to determine if it needs to be addressed. Contact the person to deal with it – do not follow up with a text or online. Thank them for contacting you, and explain or make it right.

Talk to your students about bringing criticism they receive to you so it can be discussed and dealt with, as Bare has her students do. And take the time to compile all feedback for discussion by the staff for a learning experience.

To avoid online criticism, Stephanie Emerson, adviser at Wynne High School in Wynne, Ark., oversees her staff’s Facebook page and the comments on it.

“Our Facebook page is private for me only to post,” Emerson said. “Facebook Friends can see my posts but can NOT see anybody else’s posts. I can see everything. Our Facebook page is more for announcing things, or showing what’s going on.  We do not get into dialog.”

Emerson said they only “friend” students and teachers. At the end of the year, they ask upcoming ninth graders to friend them, and unfriend the seniors who just graduated.

Remember – the yearbook staff creates a book that should reflect personal memories of the year for students. They paid money for those memories. They believe if they own it, they can complain about it. Prepare your staff to steel themselves against some comments, and even try to look for good in them.

“This really is the hard part of this job. You want everyone to like what you do — and we work really hard to be inclusive and complete and correct,” Fisher said. “What we do matters, which is why people get mean. If it didn’t matter, no one would care.”

Elizabeth Braden, CJE
Elizabeth Braden, CJE

Elizabeth Braden, CJE, is the former editor of Idea File magazine. Before retiring, she was a copywriter for Walsworth Yearbooks for more than 15 years, writing articles for various marketing materials, and proofreading copy for the Yearbook and Commercial divisions. Her career included reporting and editing for United Press International and editing for Knight-Ridder Financial News. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Media News from the University of Tulsa.