How to deal with trolls must be in a PR communicator’s tool kit

THE online world is truly an influential platform, and regrettably, some people have used that influence to smear businesses, people and situations, either out of spite or simply for amusement. They are called cyber bullies, online haters, net tormentors, harassers, defamers, trolls or jerks. Whatever they are called, we have for sure encountered them in one form or another. They are the intimidators who malign an online conversation with ghastly, naughty or off-putting comments or who spitefully attack our online community, personality, brand or company. They are PR professionals’ nightmares, too, particularly if their brands or clients are attacked.

There are a large number of people in the social space and it comes as no surprise there are online clashes, mistakes, confusions, damaged reputations, public-relations disasters and incivilities being committed. Webster defines civility as “formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech”. And over the years, some philosophers and thought leaders have considered it one of the safeguards of human society.

To Johns Hopkins University Prof. Pier Massimo Forni, civility means “a great deal more than just being nice to one another. It is complex and encompasses learning how to connect successfully and live well with others, developing thoughtfulness and fostering effective self-expression and communication. Civility includes courtesy, politeness, mutual respect, fairness, good manners, as well as a matter of good health.” Sound advice, but in today’s Internet-dominated universe and the 24-hour news cycle, this classic virtue has been rendered out of date.

Author Andrea Weckerle reveals appalling accounts of online abuses. And given the vast amount of information available online and the mounting number of such occurrences, she underscores the critical need for digital literacy.  She declares, “It’s difficult to sift through it without having established some sort of system for separating the qualitative from the quantitative, the valuable from the unimportant, the accurate from the inaccurate and the emotionally manipulative from the rational.” In other words, digital literacy requires strong critical-thinking skills that will help make informed decisions, especially among PR communicators, given the challenges the online world brings.

Weckerle shares in her writings the shocking detail, the depth of online hostility and reputational attacks against organizations and individuals. But rather than just describing the problem, she offers these solutions on how to turn the present online culture into a more embracing environment that gives everyone a voice:

It is important for society as a whole to become more civil online. And for it to function smoothly, humans, as history will bear out, have created social standards, prospects and rules of behavior that offer a framework for how people can effectively balance the need for self-expression with the need to peacefully coexist.

Emphasizing civility enables us to share our viewpoints on sometimes fiercely disputed and challenging social issues while still recognizing our opponents as individuals who should be treated with a basic level of respect. The challenge is not to “eliminate all conflicts”, but only conflicts that negatively interfere with the beliefs of others. Conflicts aren’t bad per se, and in fact, under the right circumstances, they can build an opportunity to work through differences in a constructive way. When people engage in negative conflict, they’re less interested in trying to see if they can come to a mutually beneficial resolution than they are in maintaining power over the other side and trying to prove they are “right”, regardless of the methods used or the people hurt.

Context is always important, but in general, you can recognize an online troll by their action and intent. A troll is a person who engages in “attack behavior” and tries to inflame others, sidelines a conversation, damages a company’s or individual’s reputation without a legitimate reason, or makes ad hominem attacks. In general, they gets into destructive ways of managing differences. Their intent is to look at other people’s past behavior for clues, sees if they are argumentative for the sake of being argumentative, examines whether they unfairly criticize and attack others to try to gain power over or denigrate them, determines if they’re oblivious to the hurt or damage they’re inflicting on others, and looks at whether they seem to enjoy the harm they cause. Most trolls hide behind a fake name, a pseudonym and an anonymous post. They often act alone, but may occasionally band together.

Determine the type of trolls you are dealing with.  It is the first step you should take when attacked online. There are five types of trolls: The “spamming trolls” who make uniform posts using many platforms; the “kooks” consistently post irrelevant comments in several platforms; the “flamers” make inflammatory comments; the “hit-and-runners” stop a platform, make one or two comments and then disappear; and the “psycho” types have the psychological push to hurt others in order to feel good.

Never give the trolls the satisfaction of a response. No matter how articulate your response is, nothing is going to be enough for them. In the end, your comments could get manipulated and used as more ammunition against you. Plus, a response generally makes a company appear weak or desperate. If a troll’s comment is unfounded, why stoop down to that level? You can also fight trolls without a public response by reaching out to the moderator of the web site to report unfounded or just plain malicious posts. More often, moderators will recognize the issue and strike out the troll’s posts that cross the line with libel.

Differentiate between someone who has a questionable character and someone who simply behaves in a less-than-stellar manner. “Nice” people can be online trolls, too. Again, it’s a question of degree and circumstance. Sometimes, people simply make mistakes—they transfer their frustration from an area of their life that’s not going as well as they want to into their online behavior. They don’t think about how their actions might be interpreted more harshly by others than they intended, or they snap. But when someone engages repeatedly in ongoing or chronic attacking behavior online, it’s definitely a problem. The issue there is less about outside circumstances and more of an inherent character issue.

Control your own behavior if you can’t control the trolls’ behavior. There is no 100-percent foolproof way to avoid trolls, since the Internet is an environment where individuals with different views come together and engage. How to best deal with them depends on their reasons or motivations for their questionable or inappropriate actions.

Someone who is venting online because of a frustration with bad service and feeling unattended to since the party involved isn’t adequately addressing his concerns can be dealt with much differently versus someone whose “hobby” is to wreak havoc online for personal entertainment. The former is interested in resolving his problem, and can thus be approached in a helpful and respectful way, while the latter will often try to up the ante and get a reaction out from those they’re deliberately provoking.

A big part of successfully dealing with online jerks is to manage one’s own behavior. Make sure we know our own anger triggers, don’t fly off the handle when we see something we disagree with online, and don’t allow ourselves to be emotionally hijacked by others.

Correct misconception that victims of online attacks are simply whiners.  The misconception is still quite strong. And the silly argument that you should just develop a thicker skin when you’re online is also frequently made, as is the argument that victims either “asked for” or “deserved” the online attacks perpetrated against them. These ignorant statements are often made by people who are attackers themselves, those who don’t want to examine their own questionable behavior, or those who simply don’t understand the reality of how easy it is to harm someone psychologically and destroy their reputation online. But when people have a friend or a family member who is unfairly attacked, or when it happens to them, suddenly they realize that these types of things can happen to anyone. Fortunately, you’re slowly becoming more enlightened and aware of the prevalence and seriousness of online attacks.

Have a clear plan of action.  That will make dealing with online attacks easier.  Start with a conflict inventory and assessment, assess your current digital footprint, set up a brand monitoring or listening program, add conflict-resolution points to your social-media policy, offer training in conflict management to social PR media professionals, and develop your organization’s “dark side” information kit.

Adopt a “you-can-fix-it attitude” toward the restoration and promotion of online civility.  The challenge brought about by social-media incivility will always be there.  Maintain a healthy level of optimism. After all, civility is free and rewarding. And as English aristocrat and writer Mary Wortley Montagu mused, “Civility costs nothing, and buys everything”.

PR Matters is a roundtable column by members of the local chapter of the UK based International Public Relations Association (IPRA), the world’s premier organization for PR professionals around the world. Bong Osorio is the communications consultant and Spokesman of ABS-CBN Corp.

We are devoting a special column each month to answer our readers’ questions about public relations.   Please send your questions or comments to [email protected]