Spotlight on Civility: Interviews with 8 Social Media Rock Stars

From global networking to discussing timely topics, social media presents great benefits — as well as challenges. To get the most out of online exchanges, the key is constructive engagement. We interviewed eight social media rock stars to learn how they harness positivity for social media success and use professional civility to keep online antagonism at bay.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is owner of Toby Amidor Nutrition and author of The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook (Rockridge Press 2017). Joy Bauer, MS, RD, CDN, is the founder of Nourish Snacks and the health and nutrition expert on The Today Show. Janet Helm, MS, RD, blogs at NutritionUnplugged.com and is author of “Ethical and Legal Issues Related to Blogging and Social Media” (2013) Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 113 (5), pp. 688-690; and co-author of the Academy’s practice paper “Social Media and the Dietetics Practitioner: Opportunities, Challenges and Best Practices.” Ginny Messina, MPH, RD, is founder of theveganrd.com and co-author of Vegan for Life (Da Capo Lifelong Books 2011). Danielle Omar, MS, RDN, is a cookbook author, founder of FoodConfidence.com and 2017-18 Chair-elect of the Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine dietetic practice group. Angel Planells, MS, RD, CD, is an Academy Media Spokesperson and owner of ACP Nutrition. Nicole Rodriguez, RDN, NASM-CPT is founder of EnjoyFoodEnjoyLife.com. Elisa Zied, MS, CDN, is an author, speaker and former Academy Media Spokesperson who blogs about food, fitness and fiction at ElisaZied.com.

What social media platforms do you use? What are the benefits of using social media?

TOBY: Facebook for both a personal profile and fan page. The personal profile is more for my dietetic circle and the fan page are for everyone else. I make announcements (like the release of a cookbook or talk I’m giving), post my personal blog posts, share important nutrition info, and share my own content that I write for about five national publications. I also use Twitter to share this content, and I try to participate when I can in Twitter chats or lead them whenever possible. On Instagram, I share my articles, food pics and other fun info about who I am and my healthy living lifestyle. I’m not as active on Pinterest but I have a nice following. I share recipes, some of my media content, and I manage a few shared boards that have become popular including, RD friends and Healthy Recipe Group Board. My friends and followers can get reliable, up-to-date information in the world of nutrition, and I can showcase my talents to whomever is checking me out and perhaps consider hiring me.

JOY: I use Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to share different kinds of content — recipes, research summaries, television segments or to address current headlines. Each channel works well for different purposes—Twitter is great for short, fun nuggets and is a bit more transient than Facebook, which is invaluable for building an engaged community. Most recently, I’ve found that photos and video really boost my posts across the board, too. Social media is a place where practitioners can share health information with literally millions of people. It doesn’t cost anyone anything—it’s free for everyone—and the exchange goes both ways. When I am engaging with my base, not only am I building my numbers (and of course, my reach and impact) but I am understanding what my followers want to learn more about. Social media is one of the best go-to resources for developing content strategy. My followers tell me either directly or through their conversations exactly what issues or trends they’re curious or confused about, and a lot of those topics will end up in a Woman’s Day article or in a segment on The TODAY Show.

JANET: I’m active on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, including a personal account and professional page that I use to promote my blog posts on Nutrition Unplugged or share relevant articles to my community. I primarily use Twitter to stay tuned into breaking news, monitor topics and connect with colleagues or others I admire. To me, social media is one of the best ways to stay current on issues and trends, make connections and promote a business or point of view.

GINNY: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I use twitter most often since I find that, for my particular content, it has the greatest reach. My work is aimed at ensuring that vegans and others eating plant-based diets have access to evidence-based information that will help them meet nutrient needs and choose health-promoting diets. Social media is essential for bringing that information to the public. I use social media to invite followers to read my blog and my books, but also to directly share information about vegan nutrition.

DANIELLE: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram. I am active on each of these platforms, but Facebook is definitely my jam. It’s where I like to connect with my online community and drives most of my engagement. Twitter and Instagram are great for brand awareness, but my community is not as active there, so I’m not. I use Pinterest more as a search engine and a way to drive traffic to my website for list building. I use social media to connect with my clients and community and to share information that I know would be relevant to them. It’s a tool to express yourself, illustrate your expertise, and build a community around your brand, practice or program.

ANGEL: I use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram and occasionally dabble on Snapchat, Periscope and Pinterest. LinkedIn is a great platform for networking, showcasing your latest work and keeping up with others. I visit it a few times per week to post, read career-focused articles, like or share content from others and update my online resume. I also love taking pictures with my smartphone and Instagram is a fun platform to use. Twitter is great way to stay informed on food and nutrition articles, while Facebook allows me to keep up with friends and colleagues. Literally everyone on social media is an expert in eating, so you will see lots of content on here – both good and bad. There is a lot of noise, and dietitians can exert our influence for good by putting out evidenced-based content. My personal feeling is that if we do not put out there, someone else will.

NICOLE: I use Twitter and Instagram. Twitter seems to be best vehicle to share and discover evidence-based information, and I enjoy the platform for interacting with my peers. Dietitians truly support one another on Instagram and we’ve created a strong sense of community there. Moreover, it’s a great place to raise my visibility in my geographic community. Ideally, the public benefits from having a trusted, trained, and evidence-based group of professionals to whom they can easily turn for nutrition information. In a saturated space, it’s crucial for the RD to engage and increasingly become recognized as the nutrition authority.

ELISA: I use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I love Facebook, especially for promoting monthly fitness challenges to my small but highly-engaged private Facebook group. I use Twitter to share articles and blog posts and to engage with others about politics. I also use Instagram, although less and less for nutrition related content. Social media is great for connecting with other health professionals and organizations and being exposed to timely articles, books and other professional and consumer resources. It’s also a good way to learn other opinions or perspectives of issues you care about. It helps us get out of our bubbles and be exposed to others’ views and ideas.

If a peer criticizes your content, how do you keep the conversation productive? Do you have any favorite phrases or language that you recommend?

TOBY: If it’s a respectful conversation, then I will engage in an intelligent conversation, however if someone has a tone where they are speaking down to me, are negative, are attacking, or just plain rude, I won’t respond. I don’t answer my own kids when they speak to me that way, and I won’t answer anyone else who won’t show me the respect I deserve as an individual. Sometimes, however, I find that readers have a mindset that they are looking to start an all-out fight with me, then I ignore completely. It’s not ever worth the aggravation to engage with someone who doesn’t even read or listen.

JOY: I have learned to have a thick skin! That said, I’m fortunate that I don’t see a lot of negativity on my feeds, but when I do, I thoughtfully address it with a specific study or report, or when there is no concrete body of evidence, I draw upon anecdotal experiences from when I was a clinician. As a rule, I always respond to antagonistic comments with kindness and respect while explaining my position. As dietitians, we need to deliver the goods with rationale, and also in a way that is open-minded, classy and appropriate. And more often than not, if someone is really being obnoxious, my followers will come to my defense and shut down the nastiness for me. Phew!

JANET: I try not to engage. I won’t get into public arguments that drag on with multiple tweets back and forth. I may correct any misstatements but then I let it go. You won’t change the mind of the person lashing out. The biggest audience is everyone else “overhearing” your argument, so that’s what you need to keep in mind.

GINNY: If a comment is mean-spirited or just nasty, I prefer to ignore it. I also prefer to ignore people who are determined to believe something about me that isn’t true. If it’s a polite disagreement, I always respond and explain my reasons for sharing the content. I don’t think very many social media discussions are productive beyond a few exchanges, so I will usually end my participation pretty quickly, usually by thanking the person for sharing their perspective. If they’ve changed my mind about something, or presented me with a different way of thinking about it, I will of course, gratefully acknowledge that.

DANIELLE: Keeping personal bias and opinions aside and referring back to the science whenever possible is usually going to work in your favor. I don’t recommend taking the situation personally or getting overly passionate about it. Many of these comments are made by people who have ulterior motives, and it’s much too easy to get caught in the crossfire. When a conversation becomes an argument, everyone loses. Know when to walk away.

ANGEL: Before responding, I ask myself: Who is the person? Do they have a general intrigue or are they being a troll? What is their point? Is it an actual query or are they just being condescending? Is the question or comment valid? I try to be open minded and respectful throughout the process, even though it is difficult. If we engage in smear tactics or a tit-for-tat on social media, then we give up the high road and open ourselves up to more scrutiny from fellow colleagues, as well as the public. You can always agree to disagree and move on, but keeping the communication respectful gives yourself and the profession a good face—and may actually lead to connecting with people later.

NICOLE: Respect is the name of the game! Phrases such as “it’s my understanding that…” followed by cited information is appropriate on most any platform. Be genuine and conscientious of language that can be misconstrued as passive-aggressive.

ELISA: Over 22 years as a dietitian, I’ve learned to develop a thick skin. While negative interactions with others (professionals or consumers) have been rare, I’ve learned that some wish to attack rather than engage. While I’ve learned to ignore what I have deemed to be unfairly critical, unfounded attacks on my credibility, on occasion I have engaged if I sensed the critic was open to hearing me out and responding diplomatically and without malice. I always try to look for the good in others and try to stay positive when addressing different topics. I really try to listen and hear out others’ opinions. No one knows everything — and people can take the same science-based information and interpret it differently.

Where is the line between constructive dialogue and counterproductive engagement?

TOBY: When someone is spoken down to, especially in a public forum, that is where I draw the line—whether I agree with the person speaking or not. First and foremost, RDNs are all trying to have people eat healthier and lead healthier lives, and we need to respect each other just for taking that initiative. However, I will not tolerate working, interviewing, speaking with anyone who is disrespectful, insulting, or the like. There is a professionally friendly way to do it, and then there is just plain mean and degrading. There is no room in this profession for mean, nasty people and I don’t care how smart or popular they are. I make it a point to minimize contact with these folks- they are just not worth my time.

JANET: In my opinion, the approach some RDNs are taking – no matter how well-intentioned – is flawed. I know they believe science is on their side and they’re fueled by emotion, but it’s a form of cyber-bullying. It’s not civil or professional. Too often the conversation goes beyond the message and starts to attack the messenger. That’s at the heart of this issue to me. Stay focused on the message – advance your point of view with facts, but don’t undermine the intelligence, ethics or professionalism of someone you don’t agree with. If you believe incorrect information was shared at a professional meeting, contact the organization to make a complaint. Don’t publicly shame the speaker. Post information on the topic online without your critique of the individual, contact the speaker privately and suggest a different speaker for future meeting. There are other, more professional and productive actions.

GINNY: Constructive discourse shares perspectives that are backed by some kind of legitimate reasoning. Destructive engagement tends to be driven more by emotions or uninformed assumptions. I think it’s always easy to spot which is which.

DANIELLE: Destructive engagement occurs at the point in which the other side is unwilling to hear anything that doesn’t agree with their point of view, when the facts just simply don’t matter, and it becomes personal.

ANGEL: The moment you post a message on social media is the moment you can potentially upset someone. Being in a news article or promoting your views in the public eye means you have to accept a certain amount of scrutiny. With that said, I live by the golden rule: “Treat others how you would like to be treated.” I will gladly have a conversation with anyone even if they disagree with my stance. We are all playing on the same team and disagreements happen but we all need to be civil and respectful of with our own unique backgrounds and perspectives. If a person is being rude or condescending, I’m not going to engage with them. I will tell them “thank you for your comments, I appreciate them, let’s just agree to disagree and move on.” Keep to the high road.

NICOLE: After tweeting positively about learning from the Frito-Lay RD at a FNCE breakfast, my account was attacked from a few different angles. I took the opportunity to go to bat for our seat at the industry table. When some of the offending parties began using nonsensical GIFs and declined to take me up on my offer to chat respectfully offline, I disengaged. Stand your ground and defend your viewpoint. If the engagement takes a mean-spirited or personal turn, or becomes repetitive, the discourse is no longer constructive.

ELISA: There’s a fine line between having conviction for your position and being mean and insulting towards others who have different thoughts or views. I will only engage with others who are respectful and open-minded.

What do you do if you don’t agree with a peer’s content on social media?

TOBY: If it’s just another perspective that perhaps I don’t share, then I respect their point of view. However, if it is complete misinformation then I approach them in professional fashion privately—never in a public forum. RDs are a family, and as most family members don’t all agree it’s still important to show each individual the respect they deserve. I would hope someone would approach me if any of my info is incorrect (and it does happen on occasion, even with careful research), but I try to show the same respect when approaching someone else too. I never put them down, or talk down to them as we all do make mistakes and I am always happy to talk it through with them or to guide them to the right person to discuss the issue. (That is one benefit of knowing a lot of people in the world of nutrition!) Sometimes I will also approach a mutual friend to see what the best approach to take with the individual might be. Having an outsider look in can help guide me in making the most appropriate decision, being careful to always be professional.

JOY: I’m not an attacker and so I’ll typically lay low. To me, it is a much better use of my time and energy to work on my own positive messaging and create fresh, relevant content for my audience. We should be using social media to build others up—not tear them down. Plus that kind of negativity is less likely to be successful. If I genuinely felt a dietitian was giving dangerous information, I would contact them privately.

JANET: If I see misinformation from a professional peer on social media, I may respond openly to that individual on social media, but I rarely do that. I have sent private messages or I have simply shared science-based information on the topic proactively in social media or on my blog, Nutrition Unplugged, without calling out the individual specifically. I’m more likely to correct misinformation online from non-credentialed nutritionists, which I think is a much bigger problem, than that of a colleague.

GINNY: If I perceive an agenda behind the misinformation, such as an attempt to discredit vegan diets, I’m quicker to correct it publicly. If it’s an honest mistake, particularly from a colleague, I’m more likely to correct it behind the scenes. It’s always helpful to start by pointing out areas where you and the person are in agreement. Or maybe to express appreciation for the intent behind the information they are sharing. It also helps to assume that the misinformation is simply a mistake. If I want to correct something that a health professional has said, I might say that there is a “common misunderstanding” about the topic. Or sometimes I’ll simply say that I want to offer a different perspective based on my own reading of the research. For pervasive misinformation that crops up again and again, I’m most likely to address it through a blog post that focuses on the misinformation, rather than on the people who are sharing it.

DANIELLE: I rarely get involved in correcting my peers. I do not believe it’s my place to do so, particularly if the post has nothing to do with me or my brand. However, there have been times I’ve felt strongly that a peer has gotten something wrong, and in those instances I’ve commented on the post, spoken to the person directly, or engaged in private dialogue. At what point would I get involved? If the peer was speaking to MY audience, on MY page or within MY community – then I would definitely correct the person in a respectful manner. As DIFM Chair Elect, I tend to be a little more sensitive towards misinformation aimed at functional and integrative nutrition. My experience is that most generalizations and characterizations about FN are usually made by RDs (or other health professionals) who have little training or experience working in this practice area, and are not well versed in the latest research.

ANGEL: The situation depends on the type of interactions that are seen. If [the misinformation] reflects poorly on the profession, I definitely will reach out. If it slightly irritating, I might send a brief private message but then move on. Also, I like to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps it was a misquote (which happens all of the time), the interviewer had an agenda (which also happens all of the time) or there was a space limitation and the quote was used out of context. If I reach out to a colleague, I first thank them for their efforts (I know how difficult it can be to put yourself out there) and offer a question or query with the hopes of having some dialogue. I would do this with a phone call, email or direct message and not in the public view of social media. Dear so-and-so, thank you for taking part in the article on this topic. I found your comment about this intriguing. Where did you find this data or point? It is my understanding that… etc… I would love to chat with you about it. In the end, we all need to be open to questions and being able to have professional conversations, but I would refrain from doing this on social media. No one wants to be criticized or scrutinized in public.

NICOLE: It’s not my job to regulate another professional’s dissemination of information. Thankfully, occasions of misinforming the public are rare within my virtual RD community. I personally do my best to create an online presence that’s fun, approachable, and shame-free – with science-based viewpoints sprinkled in when appropriate. Rather than correct someone else’s content, I utilize my own space to educate the public based on fact.

ELISA: I prefer to be non-confrontational in life and in my work. If I see misinformation from a professional peer, I seldom directly respond. On occasion, I might ask a question for clarification so I understand their rationale, but more often than not, I use blogs and articles to promote sound, science-based information to consumers. No matter what, I try to be diplomatic in my social media posts, blogs, articles, interviews and all communications in pursuit of providing accurate and useful information to consumers and to maintain good working relationships with my peers.

How can peers support each other and encourage professional civility?

TOBY: I don’t agree with engaging a full-on fight online—it just fuels the fire—or with bad mouthing anyone (the bully or person getting bullied) in a public forum. However, if an individual within the profession crosses the line after being asked numerous times to change behavior, then the Academy has an ethics board and issues like this can be brought to their attention. I think this needs to be done only in an extreme circumstance.

JOY: It is disheartening to see dietitians argue on public forums. It belittles our profession and is confusing to audiences who trust our expertise. It is inevitable that dietitians will have different perspectives, experiences and opinions, and so we need to be respectful and correspond privately and appropriately. As health professionals, we need to keep in mind that there are many ways to get to the finish line, and at the end of the day we all share the same goal of helping people live healthy, happy and fulfilling lives.

JANET: Twitter has become combative and it’s now quite common to see celebrities and politicians involved in public spats that can get quite ugly. We shouldn’t fall into that trap. We need to rise above this. We’re better than that. The Pledge of Professional Civility is a perfect reminder of the Academy’s Code of Ethics that should guide the behavior of everyone in our profession. Sure, the cyber-bullying goes both ways and victims have also been perpetrators. The pledge should not be viewed as silencing either side – and we shouldn’t be lining up on sides. Professional civility goes way beyond specific food systems issues that have been the source of some of the recent online spats. The topic is almost irrelevant. It’s the approach that needs to change. I wrote about this issue on my blog: United We Stand, Divided We Fall as Dietitians. Let’s agree to disagree on certain topics, but let’s be respectful and open to learn from each other.

GINNY: It’s important to stand up for anyone who is being bullied. The best way is to simply interject a statement of support into the discussion. When I am in control of the discussion — on my own Facebook page, for example — I don’t hesitate to delete and block if someone is bullying or slandering a colleague or anyone else. I can’t do a lot about social media in general, but I can stamp out bullying in my own little corner of that world.

DANIELLE: As dietitians, we agree to a professional Code of Ethics. When a peer is consistently and blatantly participating in tactics that violate these principles, they should be reported. No matter what the issue, policing each other and choosing sides will not encourage professional civility. I think the Pledge of Professional Civility is a great way to help get everyone on the same page, but in general, civility is born from character, not pledges or petitions.

ANGEL: When see troll-like behavior on social media and, especially from fellow RDNs, NDTRs for dietetics students, it is disappointing and upsetting. My personal feeling is that we are an organization of individuals who all want to see the improvement of our nation’s health through food and nutrition. Food & Nutrition Magazine launched a Pledge of Professional Civility and I signed it. I didn’t have to sign it in order to be civil and respectful to all of the members of our profession, but I support it strongly.

NICOLE: Always start from a place of gratitude – literally. I’ll either begin or conclude such an interaction with “thank you for stopping by!” or “appreciate your viewpoint” while restating my case. I’m passionate about some hot-button issues and am cognizant of the need for civility in persuading others to listen to my views.

ELISA: I don’t practice or condone the public airing of grievances among colleagues. Some things should be addressed privately. I’m all for respectful sharing of information, and for learning from others (especially those who have a specific expertise). The best we can do as nutrition experts is to support one another, to celebrate those who engage well with colleagues and consumers, and to share our opinions based on nutritional science (whether they’re popular or not) with others in a confident, respectful way. It is also crucial to listen to others’ opinions and ideas, even if they differ from your own. Doing so might help you better understand where they’re coming from if not help you learn something new or even change your view.

Lauren Fox
Lauren Fox is the managing editor of Food & Nutrition Magazine and senior manager of creative media at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.