Preventing Internet Trolls from Running Roughshod Over Your Brand
There are many benefits an association gains from being online, interacting with its membership and wider audience. However, there is also a downside, including having to deal with occasional internet trolls. So, how does your staff deal with people intruding upon your organization's online space for no other reason than to stir up trouble and elicit a response that will reflect poorly on your association?
Why Do Internet Trolls Target Associations?
The first step to dealing with internet trolls is understanding why they target your association. To begin with, you need to realize that there is an important difference between legitimate audience members with a real complaint, and an internet troll.
A legitimate complaint is when someone visits your online resources, be it your website or social media, and brings a problem or concern with the intention of resolving it. Either they want the concern addressed and solved or, at the very least, they want to know that you are listening to them and will take their feedback to heart.
On the other hand, a troll is someone who may or may not have a legitimate complaint, but they are less interested in getting the situation resolved than they are in getting a response and attention. They want a spectacle and a show, and the most important part of that is provoking a response. But why will such people target associations?
For someone looking to get a response more than anything else, an association is a prime target for various reasons:
- Open to Membership: Because associations want to be welcoming and easily accessible to potential members, there are many in-roads into their online presence. Publicly available email addresses for staff and board members, for example, as well as message forums, blogs with comment sections, communications/feedback forms, and more. The need to make it easy for existing and potential members to communicate with the organization means there are often numerous ways for trolls to gain access for all to see.
- Commerce: Selling something creates a relationship with your audience and market. Even if your products or events are not sold online, there is nothing preventing people from complaining on the Internet. Just as you can get legitimate complaints that help your association fix problems, you become exposed to people who will complain for the silliest and smallest of reasons or just because they find complaining entertaining. Your association does not even need to have online feedback channels of its own for trolls to find a forum for their game of insults considering how many general forums (e.g., Yelp) now exist for this purpose.
- Visibility: Not-for-profits have a high enough public profile that trolling them will likely grant an audience without encountering a coordinated response governed by a plan. Their reliance on volunteers means a professional, strategic response to trolling is unlikely in place.
How to Respond to Internet Trolls
Never lose sight of the fact that you are representing your organization when dealing with online feedback, be it a legitimate complaint or dealing with Internet trolls. So, why not just ignore the latter outright? Why not refuse to answer at all?
In some cases you can. If the troll is extremely obvious, out of line, and off-base from anything your legitimate audience could mistake for a real complaint, ignoring them is probably the best option. However, if you think the troll could be mistaken for a real complaint (or if there is a chance the person is sincere, if extremely rude and out of line), ignoring them may not be possible.
Understandably, you may want to put someone trolling your organization "in their place" with your response, but that would be a mistake. Remember, the Internet Never Forgets -- even if you delete something you regret saying, someone may screen capture your response or an Internet archive may grab it. Even worse, an unimpressed audience member, organization member, staff, or volunteer may see it and make things worse by expressing their displeasure alongside the troll.
At the very least, take the high road and constantly keep things professional, calm, and positive if ignoring the troll is not an option. Sure, you can try matching the troll with a cutting comment or some wit (see how Wendy's pulls it off, as an example.) However, unless you are certain the attempt will go over well with the rest of your audience and land on-point, don't risk a joke falling flat in such circumstances. You could very easily make the situation worse.
The safest bet is to stick to the facts and stay calm. Apologize and rectify where a legitimate concern is brought up, but stick to the truth. Moreover, know when to bail on the conversation. Once trolling is irrefutably identified, there is nowhere to take the conversation that the troll cannot respond with similar behaviour, no matter how absurd. At that point, simply state you are leaving the conversation and leave. Don't get bogged down in a discussion that becomes an argument with someone who has no interest in good faith, facts, or an outcome other than their entertainment. Personally, I like to end things with a polite goodbye and a bit of well-wishing to show that you, as a representative of your organization, can keep your cool and good manners despite such troublemakers' best efforts to get an outraged response.
Converting Internet Trolls into Success
Although it can be difficult to do, consider putting some effort into making Internet trolls work for you. If the trolling is couched within legitimate criticism, focus on the facts and not the tone they are delivered in. Keep addressing any responses or attempts get you hot under the collar with calm objectivity, even when it reflects poorly on your organization. Provide all helpful information possible, own up to any mistakes your association made, and keep pushing forward to a resolution.
But why bother if Internet trolls aren't really interested in solving the problem?
If the trolling has attracted an audience, at least they will see how you are behaving and how you are doing everything you can to help. Not only will this serve to underscore how out of line the troll is, but it will also highlight your professionalism and your organization's desire to solve its problems. This sort of response can help transform trolling attempts into lead generation and traffic sources.
An important part of knowing how to (and how not to) deal with Internet trolls is having a policy in place that governs how your organization's staff and volunteers interact and represent your organization online.