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Defeating the Trolls: It Takes More Than a Sassy Comeback

Jennifer Shah, SVP & Partner, Digital & Marketing Communications

Wendy’s set Twitter all abuzz recently with their response to a critic who questioned their “Always Fresh, Never Frozen” beef claim, using their signature cheeky tone to put him in his place. Granted, forgetting the invention of a thing called refrigerators makes you fair game for a joke or two, but the overwhelmingly positive reaction to Wendy’s is about more than getting a quick laugh. It’s symbolic of a greater challenge facing social media and the people faced with managing social media communities today.

Internet Troll sitting at the computer.

Internet trolls and online bullies have taken over, and as Joel Stein outlined in a recent article for TIME, hide behind anonymity, invisibility, a lack of authority and the fact that they aren’t communicating in real time or face-to-face to strip away the decency and social contract we’ve come to accept. Psychologists have coined this practice as ‘online disinhibition’.

Not all trolls are created equal, just like not all bullies are the same. There are different levels and varying degrees of severity, but overall the pesky online trolls work to inhibit the ability of others to express themselves, either by dominating the conversation or making others afraid to start a conversation in the first place.

Brands, like celebrities, can easily fall victim to the pesky troll, and most of them find themselves unable to strike back. One only needs to look at the comments section of any brand’s Facebook page to witness how even the most innocent or well-intentioned content can fall prey to someone else’s agenda. Often it’s related to dissatisfaction (usually on some completely unrelated matter) and using the keyboard as a shield, an otherwise perfectly functioning, seemingly normal individual lashes out. They let their fingers do the talking, uttering slurs their mouth would (probably) never say.

As someone who works regularly with brands to define social media strategy and protocol, I can attest that the standard advice is to not engage with the pesky troll. Like a well-meaning parent counseling a troubled offspring, we advise that if you ignore them, they will go away. Even if maybe sometimes deep down, we don’t really believe it. That one may go away, sure. But another one will be there to take his/her place soon enough.

What’s so refreshing in the Wendy’s example is that they took that bully head-on and used just the right mix of attitude – dissing him in a very appropriate, PG13 kind of way.

Why don’t we counsel more brands to take this approach?

The reality is that for most brands there is only downside to engaging with the bully or online troll. The complaints and aggression are out of proportion with the originating concern, so rational reasoning won’t work. Disparaging or contradicting the complainant may easily rile them up further and only make things worse. You can’t immediately appease them or offer discounts (because that just invites more of the same). Or even worse, you do respond, and a misstep gets broadcasted everywhere. Now you’re just another brand who messed up on social media.

It takes a lot of work to figure out the just right way to respond and most of that work happens days, weeks and months before anyone comments on your page. It comes in the form of strategy; defining your voice, your target audience; what you’d like to talk about, what you will talk about and what you will never talk about. There’s an experience and confidence that comes from knowing what you’re trying to achieve and having a clear mandate to execute it. But for many community managers their reality is very different. Most just aren’t equipped with the right resources, background or support to tackle all of this effectively. And when it comes to handling the pesky troll, the risk almost always outweighs the reward.

However, Wendy’s showed many that there could be an upside. It’s not so much what they said, it’s that they dared to say it at all. The positive reaction they received should be an indicator to brands that they don’t necessarily have to be held hostage to this type of attack on a daily basis; and that if done in the right way, it can be rewarding to stand up to the bully rather than simply turning the other cheek.

So maybe in 2017 it’s not so much about ignoring the bully but outwitting them. Rethink your strategy and your voice. Identify where you’ll weigh in and where you will refrain, and how you might use brains over brawn to deliver your message. Who knows – maybe you’ll be the next one to hit that pesky troll right where it hurts – on the keyboard.