MYRTLE BEACH — It took just about a day for the video to reach 60 million people, and for many in this coastal city, that wasn’t a good thing.
The clip, shot in a Myrtle Beach McDonald’s at the end of February, showed city police removing a homeless man from the restaurant. The manager wanted the man removed for trespassing because he had been panhandling outside beforehand, police said, but all viewers saw was one part of the situation.
Still, people from around the world descended on the Myrtle Beach Police Department’s Facebook page, many hurling insults at the officer in the video. Within a day, there were thousands of negative reviews of the police on Facebook.
The department has since removed the rating function.
The McDonald’s video marked the second occasion in the past year that a viral incident in Myrtle Beach has led to online fury. The videos are particularly harmful for the image-conscious resort city, local officials say, because bad news can translate into fewer tourists.
Now, the city plans to hire a consultant to review its strategies on social media. But it also might have something to learn from other cities in South Carolina, which use online platforms in a more conversational way.
Myrtle Beach Mayor Brenda Bethune said the city needs to have a plan in place for the next time something goes viral. Councilwoman Mary Jeffcoat said negativity on social media, including the recent viral videos, is part of a larger trend.
“There seems to be a move nationwide, from the city level to the federal government, to undermine government with false information,” Jeffcoat said.
Rich Malzone is one of the founders of “Make Myrtle Beaches Free, Clean and Safe,” a Facebook group started by Horry County residents frustrated with Myrtle Beach’s parking policies. With more than 8,000 members, it’s become a sounding board for people who regularly criticize the beach town.
He said he’s also seen people spread false information online, and banned some users from the group as a result.
“I think (the city) hiring a consultant is not a bad idea, as long as it’s used to control the fake stuff, as opposed to trying to just say, ‘You shouldn’t talk bad about us,'” Malzone said.
Some of the online negativity may just be typical small-town gossip.
“I’ve always worked under the contention these conversations have been going on in the grocery store parking lot forever. It’s just public and easier to spread them,” said Reba Campbell, of the Municipal Association of South Carolina. “It’s no more or less accurate when its spoken in the grocery store parking lot than when it’s put on social media. You’ve just got a whole lot of people able to see it.”
Campbell said her group doesn’t have guidelines for how municipalities should use social media. Online platforms are a useful tool for spreading public notices, but she said local governments must decide if they want to use Facebook and other platforms as a bulletin board — simply announcing meetings and events — or a space for conversation.
One of the most effective examples of social media use, Campbell said, is in the city of North Charleston.
That city recently hired a staffer who creates online videos. The slickly produced clips often feature businesses in the city, and when Charleston recently raised rates on its parking meters, North Charleston quickly posted a video with Mayor Keith Summey, touting the free parking in the Park Circle neighborhood.
North Charleston spokesman Ryan Johnson said videos work well on Facebook because they create more engagement than text. Johnson runs the Facebook account for the city, and he often responds to commenters with levity, posting gifs or cracking jokes.
“If you can get down to a humanistic level and discuss an issue or inject humor in an issue when it’s appropriate, people just pay more attention to that,” Johnson said.
And, he added, “Who doesn’t love gifs?”
In Rock Hill, the city has created Facebook groups to interact in an informal way with residents and to hear their concerns. Katie Quinn, communications manager for the city, said they maintain groups for outdoor activities, seniors and graduates of the city’s civics program.
“The groups allow people with those common interests to participate,” Quinn said. “I think it facilitates a little bit more discussion.”
Responding to a crisis
The reality of the media landscape today, public relations experts said, is that cities and towns can’t stop a video from going viral.
Myrtle Beach’s informal policy has long been not to engage with its critics online. But after the McDonald’s video, Bethune released a video praising the actions of the police officer, and the city released the officer’s body camera footage shortly after.
The strategy varied greatly from Bethune’s predecessor, former Mayor John Rhodes, who at one point took to personally criticizing the man who filmed a shooting live on Ocean Boulevard last year.
When people start sharing something like the McDonald’s video, the only hope is to respond quickly and truthfully, said Carolyn Sawyer, founder of Columbia-based communications firm Tom Sawyer Company.
“You cannot control (videos),” Sawyer said. “That’s our First Amendment right, to be able to stand on a sidewalk and roll your camera.”
Sometimes, when something on social media stokes public furor, admitting a mistake is the best route, Quinn said.
Last fall, as the remnants of Hurricane Irma lashed the Southeast, Rock Hill opened an RV lot to help those fleeing the storm and posted a notice on its Facebook page notifying the public that the space was available.
Hordes of angry people descended on the post, because the city said it would charge $50 a week for a space. Rock Hill ultimately offered the space for free.
“There was a lot of discussion as it was happening. ‘Well, what do we do? Do we explain why we charged the fee?'” Quinn said. “What we landed on was, you know, we have to listen to this feedback, because perception is reality.”