How to deal with social media trolls

Thu, Jun 28 2012

A client asked me recently how they should handle criticism or unwarranted attacks on social media forums, so I thought it was worth investigating in this week’s blog.

The truth is that sooner or later we will all find ourselves in a social media firestorm with our brand or personal reputation under attack from insecure rivals or upset customers. Sometimes the criticism can be warranted, but in many instances it's people just trying to pull us down a few pegs.

In the age of quick-trigger reactions it's inevitable that there will be unpleasant comments or unwarranted attacks that make us question what we are doing. Like in all walks of life, there are people who seem to thrive on trying to make life more difficult for the rest of us, and the internet is no exception.

While it's tempting to tell them where to shove their comments, it's important to remember that in any controversy or crisis your reputation is on the line and your values are in the spotlight. The worst thing you can do is pretend it’s not happening because that lets others form a false opinion about you or your company.

The second biggest mistake you can make is to respond to poison with poison. That allows the so-called trolls to set the ground rules and lowers you to their level.

What you must do is respond quickly, factually and empathetically. Show the world that you take every criticism or concern seriously – even unwarranted ones. Treat all feedback with respect, style and grace, no matter how hostile and aggressive it might be.

If you handle the assault quickly and graciously you’ll be able to walk away with your brand, your business and most importantly your reputation intact. And you might even win new clients.

If you don’t have an established social media and crisis management strategy in place, you could get hung out to dry. Here are some valuable insights that are worth thinking about when dealing with keyboard warriors:

Don’t add fuel to the fire: It’s important to defend your position, but engaging in a war of words will only escalate the situation. The number one rule when responding to criticism is to stay positive.

Adding more negativity to the conversation by letting yourself be drawn into a fight will only reflect poorly on your business. Remember that there will be times when such criticism is the result of a perceived problem rather than an actual problem (i.e. a rival who is threatened by your success.)

Criticism from trolls is designed to bait you into an unnecessary and reputation-damaging fight, so it’s often best to ignore them. The most you should say is: “Thanks for taking an interest."

Australian retailer Gerry Harvey learned this the hard way when he criticised online rival

In trying to protect his business from booming online competitors, all he did was draw attention to the fact that his rivals were successful and had cheaper products (or better insights) - hardly a winning strategy.

Journalists should also know better than to engage in a Twitter spat. This nasty exchange between Alastair Campbell - the spin doctor to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair - and Armando Iannuci - an OBE recipient and political satirist - made Campbell look bitter and twisted while showcasing Iannuci's wit and intelligence.

In a feud or crisis stick to the facts and don’t inflame the situation by getting bogged down in the detail. It can often be really hard to take it on the chin, but as anyone who deals with the media knows, conflict is a powerful news value and can make an issue much bigger than it really ought to be.

Be respectful and the conversation will self-regulate: Social media communities don’t readily tolerate arrogance and disrespect from either party in a dispute. That’s why posting inflammatory comments often results in that community censuring the aggressor and supporting the victim.

And that just makes the aggressor look worse. Speaking from experience, I know it’s difficult to sit on your hands when you’re under attack. But if your end game is to protect your reputation take it on the chin and resist engaging the protagonists.

Let your critics play in the gutter. It’s better to be silent than sink to their level. If they are threatened by your success, consider their attacks a tremendous compliment.

Have a crisis plan, and stick to it: If you’re prepared with the right crisis plan, a social media firestorm can be transformed from a negative situation into a positive brand opportunity. If your competitors are foolish enough to post about you online (especially when they include links to your site), let them.

It’s an opportunity to spread your brand name in a positive light to an even broader audience of potential clients and prospects.

Change the topic: The best way to get someone over talking about a negative topic is to move on to a positive one. Get back to doing what you do best. While you’re getting on with business, your rivals probably aren’t.

On a more humourous note, I’ve discovered there are many books claiming to have the answers for handling a social media crisis. I recently reached out for some insights and found one truly useful tip I’d like to share.

If a book on social media and the digital world isn’t available in e-format, chances are the author probably isn’t really across the topic and may not be worth reading. Leave it on the bookshelf and find someone who actually practices what they preach.

This post is an edited version of an article by Geoffrey Stackhouse originally published on Clarity solutions.

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