I remember in my first grade class we put on a play. For the life of me, I can’t tell you what it was about, but I remember this play had trolls. These trolls were malicious and downright annoying. They were ugly on the inside and out, and continuously took their frustrations of life out on the good townsfolk.
Today, any public relations representative who works in social media deals with the modern version of creature: the internet troll. Whether it’s the troll who lives to make negative comments on every piece posted, or the trolls who start their own Facebook groups just to complain—they’re everywhere. Keep in mind, these aren’t the same people who say something negative from time to time. We all use social media to complain at some point or another, but this is more than venting or bringing attention to a problem; these are people who deliberately want to be negative all the time for the sole purpose of striking a nerve. If you disagree with them, they’ll argue with you to the death, often using harsh language, name calling, and even try to paint themselves as a victim.
There’s no one right way to put up with these rays of sunshine, as every situation is unique, and every troll will respond in their own unique way. In public relations, you’ll deal with this from time to time, and together with your clients, you should determine your policy early on, so that you are prepared to handle most situations.
Here are some options when it comes to dealing with your noisy pest:
At First Strike, State Your Guidelines
For most social media sites, forums, groups, and other sites that allow public communication, users have agree to the terms of service. Mark Zuckerburg will let you use the product he created, but only if you agree to behave in a socially acceptable manner. Of course, despite all of us hitting that ‘Agree’ button, we as a society have lost our filter over the years. It’s easy to do when every time you log into Facebook, it asks you, “What are you thinking?” Social media, comment fields, and forums have become one of our main avenues for venting and speaking our minds.
Here’s the funny thing about this trend: most trolls don’t realize they’ve slipped into the dark regions of being a jerk. It started as a means to follow your favorite team. Then they did something you didn’t like. Then you complained. Then someone disagreed with you. Then the fight broke out. It happens over and over until it becomes routine, and the result is a constant flow of bitterness on a page that is supposed to bring people together over a shared love of a brand.
To stop this from becoming a trend, it’s easy to jump in as a moderator and say something along the lines of, “Hey, this is a family show! Let’s keep it clean, folks,” or politely ask they take the negativity somewhere else. If that doesn’t work, issue a warning, stating the guidelines for participating on your page. If they continue to push, then suggest kindly that maybe they just unfollow your brand if they don’t want to follow the rules.
Pro: You’ve made your guidelines clear, and most fans will respect you for it.
Con: It sucks to confront a fan like that, and there’s no predicting how they may respond.
Ignore, Mute, Hide
Most of time, trolls are just looking for attention. One of the best things you can do is simply ignore them. Twitter has a perfect feature for this: the mute button! The user can still follow your brand, as well as tweet you messages, but the app will quietly move their posts into a silent folder where you don’t have to see it. Facebook also has a similar feature where you can hide a comment, making it only visible to the person who posted it and their friends. If you don’t have time to monitor the comments, Facebook can automatically filter them based on certain keywords or language that is universally accepted as inappropriate. You can find this feature in your page settings. Keep an eye on this, though, as sometimes Facebook will be a little too sensitive to some comments. You can unhide these at any time.
Pro: The troll doesn’t get any attention from the brand, and you don’t have to see their stream of negativity.
Con: The troll will continue, and your real fans will still see it, and that visibility can still lead to those endless back and forth debates that no one ever actually wins.
This is the tough one, and I’d say most PR representatives would suggest this as a last resort, if the above options don’t work.
But here’s a truth nugget that hopefully shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone: Internet trolls bring absolutely nothing valuable to your social media. Zip. That one extra follower is not worth the shade they bring to your page. Whether it’s attacking the integrity of your team, the talent of your drivers, or the opinions of your real fans, they’re just not worth that one additional follow.
Let’s pretend you own a coffee shop, and your investors sit at a table in the corner where they can watch the happenings of the shop. You have groups of paying customers at every table, drinking your coffee, using your Wi-Fi, and interacting with each other. Customer Peter comes up to the counter and says he didn’t like his drink. No problem. You apologize, and offer something else he may like instead. Customer Rachel takes a zip of her coffee, and exclaims how good it is. Walking in, Frank overhears her comment and tells her she’s stupid and has poor taste. He then walks over to the bookcase and says you have an awful book selection. The manager quietly asks if there’s a problem, and tries to give him something to make him happy, and most importantly, get him to stop being a disturbance. Frank says no, and goes on to complain about everything within your coffee shop. Your investors are watching from their table as your paying customers are getting frustrated and uncomfortable.
I don’t know about you, but if it’s my coffee shop, I’d get to the point of escorting Frank out. He can rant and rave somewhere else, but not under my roof. My focus is to breed positive relationships with customers who I know will keep coming back and be a positive contribution. Those are the kinds of customers my investors want to see. I’m not going to waste my time trying to please someone who just wants to be mad, nor will I frustrate highly desirable customers by keeping a bad constant force of negativity around.
By banning Frank from my shop, did I really lose anything? I’m going to go with no. There’s a possibility I’m going to lose a few bucks because of the coffee he won’t by; coffee he would have complained about if he tried anyway. Am I trampling his right to free speech? Nope. He can go somewhere else and badmouth my store, which he’ll probably do. He’ll leave some bad Yelp reviews, saying that he and “all his friends” are going to cease their patronage. He’ll start a thread on Facebook or twitter about how mean I am, making himself out to be an innocent victim, seeking out anyone who will agree with him so that they can strew in the unfathomably mean treatment they’ve received.
It sounds silly, but this really does happen. Trolls who don’t heed the terms and conditions or initial warnings are eventually blocked, then resort to any means possible to continue their spewing. They use website contact forms or create Facebook groups, saying that they and all their friends (really, all) have been victimized by the PR person. They find the personal social media pages of myself or other team members. Most of the time they’re met with the response of, “Well, you sound like a jerk to me, so I’m okay with the decision.”
Pro: Your real fans, partners, and brand won’t receive that kind of harassment on your pages. Your pages continue to be a positive community.
Con: The troll almost always paints themselves as a victim and usually searches to find anyone else who suffered the same fate, in order to grow their army of negativity. Brace yourself for the fact that you might be called [Excuse my French], a bitch, an asshole, salty, entitled, or any word of the four letter variety. It’s sad, but some trolls know only to respond in that way. There’s nothing you can do.
Being a PR representative does not mean you are obligated to tolerate any and all kinds of negativity or harassment that comes at you, your brand, or your fans. Don’t be afraid to stand up for your brand and your fans, but make sure your policy for doing so is aligned with that of your clients. When it doubt, ask your client (Although, warning: they usually want to go straight to blocking) or other PR representatives. The PR community is one that I’ve always found to be mostly supportive, and a great way to get different perspectives or advice based on their experiences.
Remember that the real fans always outnumber the trolls; the trolls just happen to be a little louder at times.
If you’re a fan reading this, you’re as much a part of this sport as we are. You have a legacy too, so what do you want that legacy to be? What kind of environment do you want this sport to have? To the real fans who buy tickets and TV packages, cheer us on, ask questions, have respectful discussions, wear our gear, attend the garage tours, support our sponsors, send kind messages, make signs, shake the hands of our crew members, share stories, wait in the weather for autographs, send photos, and so much more: Thank you. You’re a big reason why PR representatives like myself absolutely love doing our jobs.
To the trolls: this sport is supposed to be fun and something we can all enjoy together. Crude language, name calling, impersonating, harassment, and threats of violence aren’t ways to get your point across to anyone. It’s just racing. So leave the baggage at the door, come back inside, and simply enjoy the sport for the party it is.