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Bot or Not? The Answer Can Help Your Crisis Communications Response – and Protect Your Reputation.

[By Thom Fladung/Hennes Communications]

Talk to a bot lately? If you’re on Twitter, chances are decent you have.

Bots are automated accounts that have proliferated in social media networks, particularly Twitter and Instagram. They appear to be real people. “They come in all shapes and sizes, and they are borderline perfect,” a story in Forbes reported.

That same Forbes story cited a study showing that 30 percent of social media users can be deceived by a bot. Researchers at the University of Southern California and Indiana University reported that 15 percent of Twitter accounts – that’s a mere 48 million accounts – could be bots, not people.

The nefarious role of bots in the 2016 presidential elections has been well-documented. As a story in The Atlantic reported: “Recent analysis by our research team at Oxford University reveals that more than a third of pro-Trump tweets and nearly a fifth of pro-Clinton tweets between the first and second debates came from automated accounts, which produced more than 1 million tweets in total.“

Those weren’t people talking about their favorite candidate – and helping influence others. They were bots.

Researcher Fabricio Benevenuto and his team studied bots and, as the BBC reported, Benevenuto concluded “If socialbots could be created in large numbers, they can potentially be used to bias public opinion, for example, by writing large amounts of fake messages and dishonestly improve or damage the public perception about a topic.”

What if your organization is on the receiving end of that assault and your reputation is being damaged – or ruined – as a result?

Enter effective crisis communications.

Scott Juba runs Radar Public Relations & Consulting and he’s the go-to guy when Hennes Communications is looking for help with social media and online communications issues.

To help figure out whether bots are attacking you on social media, Juba says start with some simple, common-sense questions:

  • Does the account look and sound like a real person?
  • Is the profile photo of the account a stock photo? (A reverse image search can sometimes help determine this)
  • Is this an account or a series of accounts with very similar messages about a subject?

Of course, research has already shown that bots can be hard to detect. So, from there, Juba digs deeper, using tools that can analyze an account’s historical posting patterns and consider factors such as whether similar accounts have the same followers to make them appear more prominent.

“There’s not any single tool that I believe is flawlessly able to identify every bot account,” Juba explains. “But when you understand the strengths and weaknesses of each tool, those tools can be used to provide valuable insight as you strive to determine whether or not an account you’re dealing with is a bot.”

Once you’ve determined that bots are part of the issue, it’s time to strike back. Tell people – particularly your key stakeholders – what’s going on.

“Call it out,” Juba says. “Call it for what it is. You’ll diminish the power of those using the bots when people realize these accounts don’t represent real people.”

And Juba notes that an increasing trend is for competitors or an outspoken opponent of a business to employ bots to make critics appear more influential than they are.

Of course, the temptation may arise to use bots for your benefit, to spread the good news about your company or inflate your image. After all, bots aren’t difficult to create. (Just try searching the internet to learn how.)

Here, the guidance is easy: Don’t do it.

Practice the most tried-and-true principle of effective crisis communications – and all communications: Tell the truth.

Thom Fladung is not a bot. He’s the managing partner at Hennes Communications and a 33-year veteran of newspapers.

To learn more about crisis communications and social media, contact us at

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