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Public Attackers

More likely, however, you will find you know your attackers. It could be your colleagues, a former employee, a disgruntled customer, a competitor, or a blogger who doesn’t see eye-to-eye with your business practices. Trolls can be right inside your organization, using their keyboards to harass their colleagues.

A few years ago, morale dropped considerably inside our organization. We couldn’t figure out what was going on. People were nice to one another in our weekly staff meetings. They joked and laughed with one another. Nothing seemed amiss when you saw the team interacting. But get someone alone, and all they did was complain about how much they hated their job or their colleagues or the work they were doing. People kept calling in sick. Some who were always on time—or early—began coming in late and leaving early. Anonymous employee satisfaction surveys showed a huge drop from the previous quarter, but we couldn’t get to the bottom of it. Until an email was sent not meant for the eyes of the CEO.

As it turns out, the mid-level managers were bullying the young professionals through email. And it was horrible. Some of the things they were saying to one another would make even the most hardened person blush. It was not only unprofessional, it was mean, rude, and disturbing. It was astonishing and it was tearing down our culture. It became pretty apparent two things were happening: First, there was a ringleader (who we discovered later), and second, they were saying things to one another in email they never would say in person. But here’s the catch: In the office, they sat less than 20 feet away from one another. So, to their faces (and to the executive team), they were all smiles and jokes and fun. But behind the computer screen? Well, it was appalling.

So, we banned email. Not external email—of course they still had to be able to email clients. But they were not allowed to email one another. They had to—gasp!—talk to one another. Actually stand up and peer over the cubicle walls to have a conversation, or walk around a wall and through a door to talk to someone else. Not only did it work like a charm, with morale rising almost visibly; the ringleader was found out and promptly fired.

This is a case of how troll-like behavior can happen in person and likely something most business leaders have encountered at some point in their career. As you begin to think about how to manage this kind of behavior online, remember there are tips and tricks you learned in your climb to the top that will help. The behavior is different, the tips aren’t different, just the tools are different.

Keeping that in mind, trolls can also be bloggers who—though they don’t work with you and never have—have an opinion on how you run your business and aren’t afraid to tell the world how they feel about it, using search-optimized posts to make sure their message stays on the first page of Google results forever.

Case in point. There is an entrepreneur in Los Angeles who is trying to change for the better how premature babies receive nutrition in a neonatal intensive care unit. Premature babies are more prone to diseases and bacteria as their little bodies grow outside of the womb. One of the worst diseases—necrotizing enterocolitis (or NEC)—kills nearly 80 percent of premature babies who develop it. The risk of a baby developing it can be greatly reduced if fed a 100 percent human milk diet. Because mom’s milk won’t have fully come in when a baby arrives early, she needs help supplementing with a fortifier. In the past, most hospitals would supplement with cow’s milk to provide the extra fat and calories a baby needs to grow and thrive.

When the American Academy of Pediatrics made a recommendation that babies younger than six months old be fed a 100 percent human milk diet, a nonprofit model popped up to take donated breast milk and provide it to hospitals for the NICU.

This entrepreneur, who has experience in the blood industry, wanted to see breast milk tested at the same level as other bodily fluids. Therefore, he took the reigns of a for-profit company to put the donated milk through a battery of tests to make sure it was safe, then develop a fortifier, and get it into the hospitals to help save lives.

But, as a for-profit organization, they see a lot of negative blog posts written about them and their business model, some even going as far as to attack this man and his executive team personally by calling them “evil” and “blood suckers.”

We have worked with hundreds of clients throughout the years, so we have seen un-ethical, dishonest, and flat out wrong business practices. This entrepreneur and his team are not any of those things. Their vision is to help the world’s tiniest, most precious babies. The babies who are born weighing less than three pounds. The babies who can’t nurse. The babies who can take only drops of milk at a time. The babies so underdeveloped they have a fairly high risk of contracting an intestinal disease—which is almost always a death sentence.

They have spent years—and millions of dollars—on research to make sure premature babies have the nutrition they need in their first few weeks on earth. They have created testing no one else does to ensure the safety of their product. And, yes, they are a forprofit company. It costs money to run all those tests. But there are some bloggers who have a big problem with the for-profit angle and have taken it upon themselves to tell the world how this big, bad, for-profit company is taking advantage of parents who have premature babies.

These bloggers who fight them with their words refuse to meet with anyone from the company, and refuse to take a tour of the facilities. They just sit behind their computer screens and throw bombs on the Web for moms to find when they’re researching the best thing to do for their newly born premature baby.

The company became a client because we believe in their mission and vision. As we began work with them, we set a plan in place to not only respond to all of the criticism, but to invite the bloggers into the California headquarters to tour the facility and meet the researchers and scientists behind the product. Most, of course, declined, citing busy lives or not being able to take time off work, but a few have taken us up on the offer...and almost all of them changed their minds about this big, bad, evil empire.

For those who declined, however, the conversation was very public in the comments of each blog post. Some parents commented saying they appreciate that the company responds and is open to the criticism. Other parents have said they’re creeped out when the organization comments on their posts. But something magical began to happen: Parents chimed in saying things such as, “If you use the company name in your updates, you should expect they’re paying attention” or “I imagine the company has Google Alerts or some kind of monitoring set up so they know when they’re mentioned online.” A community not intentionally built is now sticking up for the company, and it’s a great thing.

Typically people who post under their own names just want to be heard. We all want to know someone is listening and will help us with our issues or concerns. A simple “We hear what you’re saying. If you wouldn’t mind sending us your email address or phone number, we’re happy to talk to you about this” works 99.9 percent of the time. Think about the last time you were unhappy with a product or service. Did you have to go through the phone tree that never got you anywhere? Have you posted something online to never hear from the organization? It’s super frustrating, right?

When I speak, I tell this story quite often. I tell it so often, in fact, I’ve heard rumors that other speakers tell it, too.

In 2008, I was flying to Denver to speak to two CEO groups for Vistage International. It was the week before the Memorial Day weekend, and we’d planned to meet our friends, after my work was complete, in Beaver Creek for the long weekend. I had rented a car for Wednesday through the following Monday.

I “grew up” in a big PR firm where the car rental company of choice was Avis. Because I’ve traveled at least once a week for most of my career, I was part of their Princess Platinum club (I made that up—it was whichever club is their highest). That status traveled with me after I left the PR firm and started my own business, and I kept it because I continued that kind of travel schedule. I had no reason to leave them and I was treated very well.

The Vistage speaking coordinator called to see if I could add a day on the front end of the trip to speak to one more group. Not a problem on my end, and we called Avis to have them add to the reservation. We were told they were out of cars and I’d have to find one for that first day somewhere else. Politely explaining I was in their Princess Platinum, we asked if they could send a car from another location. The customer service rep said they had a car at another location, but that I would have to “take a cab” to get there.

At this point, it was very early in the world of Twitter, but being an avid user (especially back then), I went online to see if they had an account there. Guess what? They did! Their Twitter handle is (or was at the time) @wetryharder. So I tweeted, “@wetryharder Having a problem extending an existing reservation in Denver. Can you help?”

Crickets. Nothing. Not a peep. But a few minutes later, Hertz tweeted me. They said, “So sorry to hear about our competition. We can help!” They helped me get a car for my entire trip, gave me the same status I had at Avis, and sent me on my merry way.

About a week after I got home, Hertz tweeted me and asked how the trip was, how the car was, if customer service was helpful—they were gathering market research. Then they said if I rented from them again, they would give me their Gold status for free. I did and I haven’t gone back to Avis since then.

Remember this was in May of 2008. In September of that same year, I received a letter in the mail from Avis asking what it would take to get my business back. Four months had gone by before they realized someone who typically rented at least one car a week from them was gone. The original tweet went unanswered. Hertz was monitoring the social networks and Avis was not. And they lost a loyal customer because of it.

Sometimes we just want to be heard.

The Trolls, Critics, and Attackers

Livefyre is a plugin you can use in WordPress that allows people to comment on your blog. It’s one of the best because it cuts down on not just spam, but anonymous attackers. It requires people to create an account, which automatically dissuades most from commenting anonymously. But there are a few who will create fake accounts for the sheer purpose of attacking you or your community. You can’t prevent people from saying negative things on your social network pages, but—for the most part—those are real people, too.

If there are negative comments, remember most people want to be heard. First, get to the bottom of the complaint. Sometimes what you perceive as someone being a troll or stirring up dirt for the sake of doing so will turn out to be a valid complaint. Figure out where the complaint is coming from and whether or not they’re right. While you’re doing research and talking with your team, respond immediately to the person with, “We hear you and we’re getting to the bottom of this. Give us a few hours and we’ll update you along the way.”

Then do as you said you would. If the complaint is valid, comment again and ask the person to privately send you their contact information. Take the conversation offline and help them with the issue.

A company of 70 assisted-living and retirement homes in the Midwest hired us a few years ago to see if social media could help them communicate with the children of their residents. Knowing, of course, the children are typically the decision makers.

Through our research, we discovered a Wii had been installed in every common living area throughout the entire organization...and residents were playing games on the consoles. Such a fun little nugget—we filed that away for later use, hoping we could eventually use it. When tasked with the idea of using social media to engage the resident’s children, we knew we had to find a way to showcase these Wii competitions and see if we could extend them beyond each community.

Coming up on March Madness, we suggested they create the NCAA of Wii players and have the residents compete with one another. As they played, it was recorded in real time and uploaded to the community’s website and through Facebook. Then friends, families, and other residents could vote on the winner for each specific community. Just like in college basketball, each team could advance on and eventually face off in a “national” championship. It was a lot of fun, and people really got into it—sharing the videos, asking for votes, and suggesting games to play. And, let’s be real, retired people playing Wii is pretty fantastic.

One week, in the middle of all of this, the CEO and I were traveling to a conference together. The night before it began, we were in the hotel bar chatting about work and he asked to see this creation of ours. I pulled out my laptop, opened Facebook, and scrolled through the different pages to show him how active and engaged his communities were in this contest.

And then something alarming happened. As we were scrolling through, someone posted on the page a very scathing comment. It was unprofessional, it was mean, and it used a lot of swear words. The woman was the daughter of a resident, and she was angry after receiving a call from her mother, who was extremely upset about her visit to the resident’s beautician that day. Apparently she’d had her hair colored and it turned blue. Not an uncommon issue among elderly women, but blue hair is very upsetting.

The CEO backed away from the computer and put his hands up as if it were on fire. We talked about what to do, and then he timidly put his hands on the keyboard and typed, “I’m the CEO and I just saw this. Would you mind sending me your phone number so I can call you?”

The woman did so and he took out his cell phone and called her. Right then and there. He learned this wasn’t the first time her mother’s hair had been turned blue by the hairdresser and the salon refused to do anything about it. She was upset at their lack of empathy and customer service. He let her vent for a good 10 minutes and then offered her mom three free salon visits. He also called the salon manager and had a talk with her to be sure that never happened again.

The woman was so pleased with the responsiveness, she went back to the Facebook page and posted about it. Today she is one of the company’s biggest fans.

Of course, it’s not always going to be the most senior person in the organization to respond to a fan’s criticism, but it isn’t hard to turn a critic into a fan if you apologize and fix the situation.

When this happens to you—and it will happen to you—there is a four-step process you should employ.

  1. Get to the bottom of the initial complaint. Sometimes the critics might be right. If they are right and not complaining just to complain, listening to what they have to say will lead to identifying and solving an issue before it grows too large or gets out of hand.
  2. Consider the source. On the other hand, if the person is there only to cause trouble, you can ignore them. Responding will only add fuel to the fire, which is what these people feed on. Most of you will know who your trolls are because they show up consistently and try to take you down. All of our clients have a list of people they should ignore. Consider it your mental black list.
  3. Weigh the influence of the person. If the critic isn’t on your black list and you’re not sure of their complaint, consider how much influence they have within your industry. While you don’t want to be disrespectful of anyone complaining, you can definitely prioritize responses based on the person’s influence.
  4. Reply and then listen. If the complaint is valid, you should reply to the person—publicly—and then ask them to provide their contact information through a private message. Replying publicly allows other people to see you’re handling the situation, and then you can take the conversation offline. In the very best case, the person will post publicly again after the situation is solved, as happened with my friend.

Seven Steps to Dealing with Criticism

All of this isn’t meant to scare you. Most of you will have sites, communities, and content that increases your brand awareness, helps you position yourself in your market, and generates new leads. But there will be occasions when people will want to tear you down. Sometimes those people will be anonymous—in those cases, you can decide to ignore them. In other cases, they’ll be people you already know—they may have vocally complained about you in the past, or they may be a friend turned foe.

Whoever it is, it’s important to be strategic about dealing with criticism. The following seven steps will help.

  1. Create an internal policy. Everyone on your team—both internally and externally—needs to understand what your policy is for managing criticism online. A bad situation can be made worse by a well-intentioned employee or external partner who doesn’t understand your policy. The policy should lay out who will respond to critics online, what they’ll say, how quickly they’ll respond, and what to do if someone not authorized to comment sees or receives a comment.
  2. Be cautious. When dealing with critics, particularly if they’re anonymous, you don’t know how severe the reaction could be or how successful they may be in creating an online crisis involving hundreds or thousands of others. A good rule of thumb is to publicly say you hear them and you’d like to discuss offline. Then take it to the phone or in person. Get it out of writing so you can hear the tone of voice and see body language. The last thing you want to do is get defensive or engage in a back-and-forth debate online.
  3. Assume the best. Even if you think the answer is obvious or right in front of their face, sometimes the critic is misinformed, or doesn’t know where to look for the information on your site, or may be unwilling to search. When they complain about the obvious things, be helpful, pleasant, and nondefensive. You should never assume malicious intent until you’ve covered the obvious.
  4. Consider the medium. Unless you run a sports, religious, or news site, it’s unlikely anonymous trolls will want to spend their every waking moment criticizing you. So keep your goals in mind. Consider the medium of the criticism. If it’s directly on your blog or on Facebook, it’s far more difficult to ignore than in a tweet.
  5. Deleting posts. While deleting posts may remove the damage for the time being, when people discover you’re doing so, they’ll take you to task for that...and it won’t be pretty. Consider a politician who lies about his affair. Soon enough we all find out; cue news conference, with (or without) his family standing next to him, to admit the affair he lied about for months. It’s far worse to be found out later than to attempt to ignore it to begin with. And, when you’re transparent about your blemishes, an amazing thing happens: Your community comes to your defense.
  6. Use common sense. Take your corporate hat off and think like a human being. No one wants to be talked to in corporate jargon or be showered with pre-approved PR messages. Be understanding, listen, and make things right. Don’t act like a robot that can only repeat one or two messages. Use common sense when responding. Ask yourself if it’s a real complaint or someone just harassing you. If it’s the former, be patient and give the person time to vent their frustrations.
  7. Have a written external policy. The policy should describe when you will delete comments or ban a commenter, and establishes the tone of the conversation allowed on the site. For instance, the policy at Spin Sucks is that you can’t swear (we’ll edit out the swear words if you do) and the discourse must be professional. We once had a troll who copied and pasted his rude comment to the top of the stream every time the community pushed it down. He had been responded to, so we told him that if he continued to do that, his comments would be deleted and he would be banned. He stopped doing it. The written policy helps you moderate the conversation in a professional but open way.

It’s a very uncomfortable position to be in. None of us want to be criticized. But, as the saying goes, if people either love you or hate you, you’re doing something right.

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