In a crisis, don’t feed the trolls

When a crisis hits, communicating with genuine stakeholders is vital. But the communications response can be hindered by focusing on nuisance calls, malicious emails and anonymous criticism on social media.

A company I once advised after a crisis hit sold very niche services only relevant to a corporate buyers and which would not be of interest to the general public. That didn’t stop people with personal email addresses, who’d read about the brand in the tabloid press, sending emails sending angry emails saying that they had been planning to buy but were now boycotting the company. Many of the emails came from fake email addresses. Some were purporting to be from business partners or members of Parliament – but were actually used forged email addresses.

With social media it is vital to keep a cool head. It is not necessary or feasible to respond to every comment on Twitter and Facebook. A statement needs to be published or linked to from social media channels – and a view needs to be taken about who the commenters are. It is a waste of time engaging with anonymous haters – they are not out to engage in meaningful dialogue but simply to cause your brand harm.

So trolls should not be fed – but there is one group on social media who could act very much in your favour: brand advocates, if you’ve developed them. These are stakeholders who are flag-waving supporters, as Stephen Waddington and Steve Earl write:

In the event of an unfounded brand attack, a strong move by the brand to counter the allegation and take a sharp jab at detractors is highly likely to cause advocates to leap to their defences. While it may mean rolling with the punches, the stark reality is that the more emotive the issue in hand, the more attractive an entry point it will be for brand vandals to do their work but the more fired up fans and vocals are likely to be. If you’ve built a strong community of advocates, their action and their influence should be practically second nature.

Third-party supporters bring credibility to a crisis response, because they are independent. But identifying who might be a brand advocate in advance a crisis and nurturing them – e.g. by inviting them to VIP events, asking them to beta-test products and asking for their feedback – can help you build a core group of enthusiasts who can be sent information when a crisis folds.

Obviously, anything you send them will find its way to other stakeholders and the media. So it’s important not to send brand advocates messages saying: “We’re taking a beating: please go into bat for us”. Instead, simply let them know what the crisis is and how you’re resolving it, and some of them will choose to defend you.