Crisis PR: The Increasing Danger of Twitter
This is the first post in Cheryl Snapp Conner’s new column series for LinkedIn. Follow this series to get my bi-weekly updates on crisis communications/PR.
Everyone in business is vulnerable and at least an occasional victim of the growing problem of trolling on Twitter. Twitter gets this, and is attempting to enact solutions out of fear that trolls are driving ad revenue and business away. The legal risks of Twitter trolling are severe and may include
- Harrassment, Stalking and Cyberbullying
- Tortuous Interference of Business
- Deception or Misrepresentation (i.e. Libel or Slander)
- Threats (akin to assault if it creates a genuine fear of imminent physical harm)
- Violation of privacy, when personal or confidential information is revealed.
- Violation of copyright, if copyrighted material is copied without permission or citation
In actual practice, though, few people have been pursued legally over material they’ve tweeted, even in extreme cases of abuse. There are many instances of people being fired, however, for tweeting things that are politically insensitive or stupid. Think Roseanne Barr and the infamous “Ambien Tweet” referring to former Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett as an ape. Or, closer to my home, the PR lead who referred to FedEx’s headquarter location as the “armpit of America” as he landed for a visit with his agency’s largest account. FedEx fired the agency, which promptly fired the Tweeter, as well.
But practically speaking, the business ramifications of Twitter trolls are rampant. Trolls perceive a lack of consequence. According to psychologists, many are even “juiced” by the activity—on the whole, the worst offenders rank high in psychopathy, low on affective empathy (the ability to care about the effect of their actions on the target), but high on cognitive empathy (skill in knowing exactly where and how to strike for maximum harm). They are narcissistic, Machiavellian and even sadistic.
As an example, Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi awoke every morning in the weeks before his murder, according to The Boston Globe, to an army of Twitter trolls enacted and even hired by the Saudi Arabia government to harass and discredit influential Saudis who are critical of the kingdom. “The mornings were the worst for him because he would wake up to the equivalent of sustained gunfire online,” Maggie Mitchell Salem, a friend of Khashoggi’s, said to The Globe.
What does this means for business and individuals who come under attack? Thanks to Twitter’s newest policy adjustments, the company is taking greater precautions to eliminate accounts set up with a faulty email address or that show a pattern of harassment. However, particularly given the psychology of the online abusers, any attempt to curtail their actions may only serve to propel them further. When they get shut down (a process that can require many weeks), they simply start over by setting up another account with another email address on the spot. As a business you can block an offender, but it only prevents their material from showing up in the official thread of your business. By including your Twitter handle and hashtag identifiers, they ensure the harassment will continue to show up in search.
So what can you do? The following are a few of my favorite rules for coping:
1. Prevent it. I am continually stunned to learn how many Internet trolls turn out to be from the “X files.” Ex employees, partners, spouses and friends with a malicious desire to embarrass or discredit a prior associate are rampant. At least in the employee department (and potentially with affiliate partners as well) you could fend off a great deal of future difficulty by making sure every relationship is begun with an employee or partner contract that requires, by signature, an agreement of confidentiality and non-disparagement on both sides, both during and after the engagement. While much trolling is anonymous, it is still possible to trace a source if you need to. Furthermore, the psychology of trolls makes them prone to bragging about their actions to others. Be sure the language includes the feeding of disparagement to others as well as conducting the actions themselves. Enact a clear policy for social media activities by your employees as well.
2. Set a policy. Post a clear policy for social media behavior at the top of your Twitter and Facebook accounts. This will give advance warning of the behaviors by anyone that would result in their remarks being removed or their account being blocked. Foul words, hate language or bullying and abuse should fall under these policy guidelines for fair warning and universal responses to all.
3. Kill them with kindness. A troll is fed by the ability to get under your skin and make you mad. If it’s a customer service or product complaint, respond in a highly courteous way. “This doesn’t sound like anything we’ve ever experienced or would find acceptable. Would you please email XXX so we can look into this further for you?” This may be the end of it.
4. Tell it to the hand. While you can delete any remark you find offensive for any reason and even report the remark or block the individual, consider the troll psychology you risk before acting. Deleting a remark only removes it form your own view. Your customers will continue to see it. Blocking the individual may just add fuel to the fire if the troll is pernicious. A better response may be to simply ignore the comment to avoid giving it juice. Take a screen shot, though, to give you the evidence required if you later decide to report the pattern of activity. If you can ignore the person for long enough, a confirmed troll gets bored quickly and will turn their attention to a more promising target.
5. Appeal to their better nature. A company that faced accusations of sexual harassment received anger far beyond the scope of the original complaint. Even the consultant brought in to conduct sensitivity training became a target for the trolls who immediately and publicly disparaged her credentials. In cases like this, consider a private message to the accuser to acknowledge their position and skills, and gently point out that both sides are seeking the same outcome—better safety against harassment. So rather than undo the people and the organization striving to provide it, could the person consider offering their inputs for improvement instead? This can divide an army of detractors in two, separating the individuals with a genuine desire for improvement from those who will denigrate any steps toward improvement because they are invested purely in escalating the fight. Ultimately, the deeper agendas are exposed, and the trolls looking only for a fight and a platform are increasingly left in the cold.
6. Maintain your sense of humor. If you can use it with skill, humor may disarm a detractor. For example, John Rampton reported in Entrepreneur a complaint about chicken “that tasted like it had been beaten to death by Hulk Hogan.” The company replied with a clever metaphor along with its apology, effectively solving the situation while also lightening the mood.
Ultimately, online platforms may grow more effective in eliminating troll behavior. Likewise, our sensibilities as a culture may become more productive as we learn to work better within the internet’s rules. Until then, I suggest that all of us be smart, be careful and remind ourselves to behave like good human beings. And if you’ve found other effective ways to deal with these issues, I look forward to your remarks.
More about me and SnappConner
I am a frequent speaker and author on issues of thought leadership and crisis PR. If you need more help from me or from our team, feel free to reach out to us at www.snappconner.com. There is also a library of more than 600 of my columns available at Forbes.com. We have some free resources you are welcome to download, and you can sign up for our bi-weekly Snappington Post while you’re there. You can also learn more about our thought leadership and content training and program by visiting www.ContentUniversity.com.