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The Age of Outrage: Crisis Management in Social Media Pile-Ons

[by Howard Fencl, Hennes Communications] There’s nothing the self-righteous embrace more than joining with their fellow self-righteous to gang up on some unfortunate target. The angrier the echo chamber, the better.

Social media is their perfect rage machine. It’s where anonymous trolls can obsess and pile on. And they do it relentlessly and instantly over the most minor perceived slight.

We blogged about the phenomenon when we dove into confirmation bias – the tendency of people to seek and listen only to those viewpoints supporting their own, the facts be damned.

Waking up and finding your business is the target of a troll tweetstorm is the stuff of nightmares for our clients. Publishing a statement explaining the facts doesn’t seem to slow the ceaseless stream of invective. Responding directly to over-the-top zealots is futile because your facts don’t support their outrage. They’ll never hear you. You can’t seem to win.

Is there an alternative communication strategy?

It’s not for the meek, but there’s a viable alternative strategy emerging: Wait it out.

We recently worked with a client – a consumer products company – under siege in social media only because it filed a lawsuit against competitors to protect its intellectual property. Well, weren’t they the 900-pound gorilla throwing their weight around trying to snuff out competition from all the little guys in their space? Trolls thought so. Emotions ran raw. Boycotts were threatened.

Despite the overwhelming urge to strike back, we waited. We had a statement approved and ready to post, but we held back, knowing that would likely touch off an encore siege. We closely monitored the avalanche of comments for number and sentiment. Flare-ups happened when you’d expect them to happen – on weekends when people were home from work and looking for something to do. And what better way to spend your off day than piling on in a flame war with like-minded netizens?

Monday came around and the numbers subsided. The troll posting pattern repeated, but attenuated over the next week: a weekend spike, but in lower numbers. Enough time had passed that we agreed it was too late to use the approved response without drawing a stratospheric new wave of outrage.

Some important points to embrace if you decide to use this strategy:

  • Hold your customers and employees close. They’ll no doubt wonder why you’re not jumping all over social media responding to the ire directed against you. Tell them the facts. Answer their questions.
  • Watch for trends as you wait, particularly if comments are increasing geometrically in number or become violent, racist, or particularly toxic. Your gut will tell you when it’s time to set the facts straight with a statement and deal with possible backlash, when it’s time to report abusive behavior to a social media platform, or when it’s time to call the authorities.
  • Put your best social media monitoring experts on the issue to do intensive detective work. Who are your online detractors? Are they merely weekend warriors? Can any be outed as your competitors or busted as disgruntled employees?

Outrage is addictive. There’s power in numbers and joining a virtual mob is an easy adrenaline rush for dedicated trolls. But it may not be necessary to knee-jerk and immediately respond when your company finds itself under attack.

Our recommended approach: Talk internally about company issues at hand that will likely stir controversy. Have a rollout plan to communicate that first to your important audiences before unleashing it on the world. And if the mob comes, take a deep breath, put emotions aside, and gather your crisis communications team to strategize options for a way forward.

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