Let’s face it — if your government agency does not have an online presence, especially in the realm of social media, both the public and your agency are missing out.

Social media provides unprecedented levels of engagement. It can spur discussion, generate rapid feedback and encourage participation.

But when you open up channels of communication that present less control than most government agencies are used to, say on Facebook or Twitter, you run the risk of allowing in criticism and negative feedback.

So, should social media be censored if negative comments are made, and if so, how? That was a question recently asked of GovLoop members.

Nearly all of the respondents were in agreement that an agency deleting negative comments diminishes credibility and trust.

“There are few absolutes in social media, but to me, one of them is that you absolutely shouldn’t delete comments simply because they criticize your agency. Doing so just shreds your credibility, denies you the chance to respond, and tells the world you’re not actually interested in hearing what the world thinks,” said Jeffrey Levy, director of Web communications for the EPA.

Despite how difficult it can be for a government agency to allow negative comments to exist, sometimes members of the online community can be your best stewards.

“If negative comments are made, either the community will address them because they are incorrect, or – perhaps – the community will agree with them because they aren’t. In either case a positive outcome is quite possible, though in the latter it might be more difficult and less comfortable for the organization,” said Jesse Wilkins, director, Systems of Engagement at AIIM International.

Whether the comment is positive or negative, government agencies need to have guidelines for what is, and is not, acceptable feedback. Having safeguards from profanity, sexual content, racism, obscenity, threats and spam are among the most common types of stipulations put forth in government agency social media guidelines.

And even if the content of a comment is questionable, some have proposed that agencies reach out to that person, so that the user’s sentiment can be expressed in a manner that adheres to commenting guidelines.

“Depending on the comment, we’ll even send an email to the user asking them to repost without profanity or personal attacks. Most people are okay with that,” said Kevin Lanahan, an interactive media specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation.

But above all else, members found that a common sense approach was best when interacting with the public on social media sites.

“Sometimes it’s good to know what people are feeling. Good to know what’s irking them. The key is that not every criticism needs to be responded to. Sometimes people just want to vent,” said Denise Petet, a media technician with the Kansas Department of Transportation.