What are outrage tactics? Outrage tactics comprise a communications strategy employed to general an emotional response to an issue by conflating it with a second issue about which people are inclined to become outraged.
Politicians and pundits often use outrage tactics in to energize and motivate the base to action. “The War On Christmas,” “Rape Culture,” “Culture Wars,” “Patriarchy.” These are all terms which are used by people looking to stir up outrage which creates engagement. Once engaged, a person becomes more inclined to write letters, comment, share posts, show up to rallies, and share the idea with friends (and everyone else).
Voters can be polarized by these tactics. They can be driven to vote for candidates who might not support their interests because they are convinced that the opponent is the enemy of Christmas or women or morality or immigrants or any other group or idea that the voter cares about.
Social media platforms like Twitter can be particularly effective in fanning the flames of outrage. People reflexively share items which trigger an emotional response, allowing a meaningless or even false story to spread with alarming velocity.
Recently, we saw the example of the gender neutral Santa controversy. It was almost entirely invented to generate marketing attention, web site clicks, and political traction, and the public ate it up.
An Adversarial Reputation Crisis (ARC) may be driven with outrage tactics, in which the target is tied to a concept that the audience is inclined to become outraged about. The detractor can link the target to an outrageous idea, which psychologically transfers the outrage from the idea to the target. This is unfortunately quite effective when a detractor is trying to take down a target for a relatively minor offense.
When you see an issue that is so outrageous it can’t possibly be true, consider the possibility that it might not be true. Who stands to gain by your outrage? Is your inclination to say “well, that’s just too much!” being manipulated?
Want to learn more about outrage tactics or want to connect with us? We’d love to talk to you. Contact us.
There may be someone out there who wants to make you look bad. We call them a “detractor.” Much as we are surrounded by viruses throughout our lives, there are people around us who wish us ill. Like a virus, such a detractor has a minimal impact on our lives unless they can get some traction.
The best thing to do with such a person is to try to connect with them, understand why they wish you ill, and try to find some common ground in which to bury the hatchet. However, there are some people who simply cannot be reasoned with and just won’t let it go.
Should they achieve traction, it becomes a situation we refer to as an Adversarial Reputation Crisis. However, one of the best ways for a detractor to achieve traction is to manipulate you into giving them a platform.
Your Audience and Your Detractor’s Audience
Likely, you have a much larger audience than your detractor, and they want to reach that audience. At the very least you have greater access to the audience of people important to you than they do. You have certain platforms which can reach most of your customers or friends or constituents. This includes your web site, your social media platforms, and even your business.
They may attempt to co-opt these resources to carry their negative message. They could post a negative review, comment on social media, or even come to your business and badmouth you. Fortunately, most of these efforts can be countered. You can delete comments. You can kick them out of your business. Often, you can even respond to their reviews as well.
What if they can get you to put their message onto your platforms? That would be quite a coup, wouldn’t it.
Carrying Your Detractor’s Message
Why would you share the message of someone trying to ruin your reputation on your own platform? Because you are trying to refute this message.
Let’s say that someone is going around telling people that John eats cats. A couple of people have asked him about it, and he’s even seen a couple of social media posts that suggest that he eats cats. He wants to get in front of this, so he goes on social media.
Before this post, John’s detractor had been spreading the rumor, and it had caught on with two of the detractor’s dimmer friends who posted about it. These people have very few friends in common with John, and no one who doesn’t know John finds this rumor interesting, so no traction there.
John has 975 friends. The idea that John might eat cats has now gone from an audience of 3 to an audience of 975, all of whom know John. Every person seeing this post might start to wonder who started the rumor, why they would say such a thing, and, worst, is there anything to it? After all, that’s an odd rumor to make up out of whole cloth.
John has multiplied the audience of the detractor by a large multiplier. In attempting to address the problem, he has greatly exacerbated the problem.
Tacos and Politics
This kind of thing happens all the time. It is very easy to overestimate how much traction a detractor is getting. Of course, if they are getting traction, it is crucial to respond from your platform of authority. That’s just good strategy. A strong counter strategy is to trick you into doing so prematurely, or, even better, getting you to compromise your own platform to respond.
Amigos Taqueria y Tequila, a Mexican restaurant in Westerly, Rhode Island, recently had a such a situation. On election day, their staff wore t-shirts which said “86 45,” reference to impeaching President Donald Trump. State Senator Elaine Morgan claimed that the shirts were advocating not impeachment, but murder, and called for a boycott.
Senator Morgan’s call spread across the Internet, and Amigos was soon getting threatening phone calls, online harassment, and all the rest. Most of this was coming from people outside the local community.
Amigos responded by taking down their Facebook page, disconnecting their phone, and replacing the front page of their web site with a message discussing the situation. As a response to the onslaught, they effectively shut down their standard digital marketing program.
Senator Morgan, by motivating a relatively small number of individuals with extreme right wing passion, was able to create the impression that this issue had taken over the entire dialog. Under the onslaught of angry phone calls from other states and social media attacks, it seemed that extreme action was needed.
This particular extreme action took a conflict which was mostly happening out in the cloud and brought it home. A local customer looking for a good taco, might come to this web site and discover that their enchilada would come with a side of politics and choose to go elsewhere.
In an effort to share their side of the story, Amigos had to share Senator Morgan’s version as well in order to provide context. Further, the issue for most people is not if Amigos was right or wrong in this. The issue is that there is conflict at all. While some might be intrigued by this or supportive, the vast majority of potential customers prefer their burritos without drama.
Any bully’s main goal is to get a rise out of the quarry. They want to see them react, and I can imagine that Senator Morgan got great satisfaction when Amigos altered a crucial part of their digital marketing identity in response to her ridiculous accusation.
Naturally, Amigos did need to engage with this crisis in some manner, but compromising their own marketing platforms to do so did not serve their interests.
I at one point had a run-in with a peculiar individual in a local community. His relationship with reality was tenuous, and he had a tendency to do something wrong, then project it onto others. For example, he might tell people not to attend a charity event he didn’t like, then proceed to accuse you of telling people not to attend charity events.
This troubled individual began to go around town and spread ridiculous falsehoods about me. My first thought was that I might want to get in front of this. I could share to my channels who this individual was and what he was doing.
To do so, however, I would have given him and his absurd suggestions a larger stage and greater credibility than he could ever possibly achieve on his own.
I did occasionally hear from contacts that they had spoken to him, and he had shared his foolish suggestions with them. This report was immediately followed by an opinion that what he said didn’t make much sense and they put very little stock in it.
Had I dignified his statements with a public response, it would have elevated his ramblings to the level of credible concerns. By simply allowing him to go about his business, the issue all but vanished on its own.
Moderation In All Things
Regardless of the nature of the situation, a response must be appropriately measured. Often times, the reaction to the situation causes more damage to the target than the detractor could ever have done on their own.
If you are dealing with a situation, and you are not sure how aggressively to respond, contact us. We’d love to talk it through with you and see how we can be of service.
Most communications crises that arise are a one player game. Some event has occurred and the client is working to manage the situation. There are certainly many people involved: stakeholders, customers, employees, the media, regulators, etc, but generally, none of them are actively working to make the situation worse.
But what if they are? The most dynamic and dangerous situations are those at which there are multiple players at the table, what we call an Adversarial Reputation Crisis. It is vital not only to consider the likely results of any statement or action, but the countermoves of the party seeking to do you harm must also be considered.
As I worked on the team fighting to protect Wicked Faire and its thousands of stakeholders, we had a Adversarial Reputation Crisis.
The basic situation was relatively simple. The owner of the company had been accused of inappropriate behavior and had stepped down from the company with an apology. Ordinarily, that would have been the end of the existential threat to the organization, but there were actors with a more comprehensive agenda. They did not merely want their concerns heard, they wanted to take down what he had built.
Our moves faced countermoves. Complex and organized misinformation campaigns were working to counter our communications. Individual members of our team were facing character assassination and threats.
It was only by being more organized and thinking more moves ahead that we were able to prevail and run a highly successful event.
Your Opponent’s Objectives
Before any kind of planning or response can be effective, you must understand your opponent’s objectives. Why are they doing this? Adversarial Reputation Management situations are quite rare outside of politics because it takes a great deal of time and energy to attack a reputation.
Most often they occur because an individual or group of people feel that a person or organization has done something wrong, and they feel that they have the duty to create “justice.”
This can happen because of actual wrongdoing. It can happen because of a misunderstanding. It can also happen because of a PR response so catastrophically flawed that it inspires people to take action against you. This last reason is why it is so important to have good plans in place and to work with crisis communications experts when a situation arises.
The objective may be limited, such as getting restitution for a person who was wronged. It maybe punitive, in the sense of punishing a person or company for what they did. Usually, even the parties involved are not completely sure what they want, but they know they really want it.
The objectives can also change, especially if you mismanage the situation. A situation, that could have been solved by a sincere apology early on, may reach a point where it can only be addressed at great expense and loss later in the process. This is often exacerbated by lies early on, which is why we advise that you should never lie under any circumstances.
Always look for those easy solutions early.
If a party is trying to hurt you, they are seeking to hit you where it hurts. If you are up against a big, muscle-bound bruiser, a poke in the eye, punch in the nose, or even stepping on his toe, will take him down just as fast as any other opponent.
There are many places where you are invulnerable to assault, but there are others where you are highly vulnerable. You must quickly assess where those weaknesses are and be prepared to defend them.
In the case of a convention, for example, the vulnerability is hotel room bookings. The event could run if it lost some speakers or some vendors, but it cannot run without a venue. In a convention at a hotel, if the number of booked rooms falls below a certain point, the organizer must cover the difference.
Thus, a campaign to shut down an event could focus on the hotel, convincing reservation holders to cancel their reservations.
It is vital to know your assets in an Adversarial Reputation Crisis. What resources do you have in cash, public relations platforms, contacts, allies, supporters in the public.
You must also know the situation. What is the terrain? Where is people’s attention focused? What do they want to hear? What outcome do they desire?
It is here that many companies stumble. By failing to understand what the public is upset about, what they want, they lose goodwill while wasting time and resources pursuing the wrong course.
If you can understand the desires and objectives of various stakeholders, as well as perceptions and misconceptions, you may find that the solution is quite apparent. This goes back to understanding the objectives of those who are aggrieved.
Situations may also arise in which you have actually done what the public has demanded, but you have failed to inform them. You may think that you have informed them, but they have not received and embraced that information.
This is another element of situational awareness: know what people know, and know how to get information to them. Much of this comes down to knowing where their attention is focused and then placing your message there.
Some audiences will not read closely, meaning that they may read your statement or letter, but they may not take from it the message that you intend. Many people read the first paragraph or two and then skim. Likewise with video announcements. They may only watch the first minute or two.
Often, others will then interpret your message for them. In some cases, it is an unbiased third party such as the media. In other cases, especially in an Adversarial Reputation Management, individuals with an agenda may interpret your message for you, co-opting your communication and rendering it ineffective.
You must find communication channels which will reach your audience, and due to the constantly shifting media and digital landscape, the solution to that question may be different by the time you read this article than it was when I started writing it.
This is another reason why it can be very important to work with a crisis communications expert who is versed in identifying the best channels and platforms to carry your message.
The great majority of reputation management crisis situations do not involve other parties actively seeking to harm your reputation. Should you find yourself in an Adversarial Reputation Crisis, we can help. Contact us.
Whether in general PR and communications or in crisis communications, everything that you do is built on a foundation of trust and credibility. It does not matter what you say if you audience does not believe it. Even a single lie will destroy that credibility.
This is one of those lessons that you hopefully learned in kindergarten and can serve you very well in your professional life. When you lie, whether it is a big lie or a small lie, it permanently and irreparably damages your credibility.
This is why the first part of the Rotary Four Way Test is “Is it the truth?” When creating a set of guiding principles for business people of integrity to follow, truth was paramount to the leaders of Rotary International and should be so to you as well.
The Truth Always Comes to Light
Most people do not need an analytical explanation for why lying is a bad idea. However, there are those in business and politics who will suggest that there are times when the truth is not an option because of the consequences it would bring. Here is why that idea shortsighted and misguided.
Sooner or later, the truth always comes to light. It is impossibly naive to believe that a secret can be kept forever, especially in a corporate or political context. Each person who knows the truth has their own interests and agendas, and it is only a matter of time before one of them decides that disclosure is in their best interest.
In any scandal, a prisoner’s dilemma situation will develop in which each holder of the secret will realize that it is best if no one discloses the secret, but that if someone is going to do it, there would be a great advantage to being the first one to do so.
Once the truth comes out, the consequences for the initial misdeed come due with interest. The repercussions are almost always more severe when the public has to find out the hard way, in addition to the compounded costs of loss of credibility.
We have become so accustomed to corporations and public figures lying to us that we simply assume it to be the way of things. Everything that they say is taken with suspicion.
In a crisis communications situation, developments may be occurring quickly enough that your information is not fully accurate when you present it.
It is okay to make a mistake, as long as you promptly own and correct it as soon as the mistake is realized. To ensure that your errors are not multiplied by deceit, consider these steps: declare uncertainty, promptly admit to errors, address all honesty concerns.
If you are not 100% sure of a fact that you are sharing, let people know that. Don’t say “I guarantee” or “I am confident” or “I am sure” if there is a chance you may need to take it back.
If you say “I am confident that no one in our office was aware of this situation,” and it comes out that someone was aware, then you have lied. The statement has two parts: “I am confident” and “no one was aware.” On the second part, you made an error and can correct it, but when you said you were confident, you were, in fact, lying. You were aware that there was a doubt and lied about your confidence.
You must never lie about anything in crisis communications. (And really, you should never lie at all.)
Instead, say “To the best of my knowledge, no one in our office was aware of this situation. We continue to investigate so we can be absolutely sure.”
Promptly Admit to Errors
In a crisis, information will be developing faster that it can be effectively managed, and you will make errors. To keep errors from being perceived as deception, you must be prompt and transparent in owning, admitting to, and correcting those errors.
In the example above, if you later find out that someone in your office did know about the situation, you must come out at the first opportunity and declare the error and the correction. “In a previous statement, I said that, to the best of my knowledge, no one in my office was aware of the situation. I have since learned that I was mistaken. We now believe that Mr. Smith may have been aware of it, and we are actively looking into this. I will share with you what we have discovered as soon as we have confirmed it.”
By maintaining your credibility, you are able to adapt to new information as you receive it, and because you are being prompt and honest about developments, the public should give you reasonable space to find the truth, which they believe you will share with them.
Address All Honesty Concerns
Your most vital resource is credibility, and that is built on the public’s belief in your honesty. Any allegations that you are lying or withholding information will undermine that credibility.
An allegation of dishonesty left unanswered can quickly metastasize into a rumor and then a belief and finally a “fact.” In the social media environment, you will have access to detractor viewpoints, so it is easy to recognize these concerns.
Once you are aware of a concern about your honesty, you should address it from your communications platforms in order to address it before it gains traction.
You should not engage in the comments or forums. Instead, you should keep all of your communications on your own platforms, maintaining your authority and integrity in your communications. You, or a supporter, may post a brief comment with a link to your official response explaining that their concerns are addressed in the linked article.
There is no situation in crisis communications where a lie is every the correct move. It is not the right choice morally or tactically. There may be different ways to present and share the truth, but any one of them is superior to deceit.
Are you trying to get the truth out, but finding it overwhelmed by misinformation? We can help. Contact Us.
Many years ago, long before Twitter, we all became aware of the limits of email as a medium of communication. Lacking the depth of non-verbal communication, voice inflection, and body language, it was easy to misunderstand the writer’s intention. Misunderstandings and conflicts could develop that would never have occurred in a face to face conversation or even a phone call.
If you think email has problems…
I learned early in my career that if things seem to be getting heated or confrontational on email, it’s time to pick up the phone and clear things up.
In the days of email discussion lists, Usenet newsgroups, and Live Journal, the term Flame War came into use, generally referring to an online argument which arose as an artifact of this format in which tone could be easily misinterpreted.
Facebook made this phenomenon a bit worse. It encouraged posts of a few sentences instead of a few paragraphs, and comments on those posts were generally even shorter. With less information, misunderstandings increased.
Twitter distilled communication to a form which minimized content and nuance, creating an optimum environment for misunderstanding and conflict.
Twitter and the loss of nuance
I have never been a great fan of Twitter. How could you express any kind of nuanced, meaningful idea in 140 characters? Of course, that is the appeal of Twitter. Most people are not interested in nuance and meaning. They want to make a quick quip and be on to the next thing.
Twitter legitimizes intellectual laziness. When everyone is speaking in 140 characters, then your short, meaningless post is just as deep and meaningful as everyone else’s.
Yes, I know that Twitter has doubled their maximum to 280 characters. The basic principle remains. By comparison, according to Sprout Social, Facebook allows 63,206 characters, Instagram 2,200. Even YouTube allows 5,000 characters.
In a previous article, I emphasized the importance of not debating in comments for anyone who needs to speak from a position of authority. Twitter is like one big comment section. It’s very format almost encourages misunderstanding and strips nuance. Worse, it trains its users to think in short, staccato bursts.
When I set up this web site, I was suggested by a number of friends to read Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. In it, he discusses a number of examples of individuals for whom a single Tweet or post had gone viral causing them to become pariahs. Often, they lost jobs, friendships, and prestige due to a simple misunderstanding.
Justine Sacco’s Twitter nightmare
Justine Sacco made a single Tweet that went viral while she was on an international flight. It was one of a series of silly, off color, poorly thought out tweets that she made during her long travels to amuse herself. She was followed by 170 people at the time, and rarely have much if any engagement in her postings.
But this one was picked up, and in the tinderbox of Twitter, all that anyone needed to know was what the 64 characters of her tweet said. Having been trained that every tweet is a fully self contained thought and that every tweet can represent a whole person, the Internet was fully prepared to judge and punish her based on this single entry.
She would subsequently lose her job, many of her friends, and her standing in the community, moving to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for a time. Ultimately, four years later, she was able to fully return to society, getting a new job with IAC, from which she had been fired after her tweet.
Coming back in out of the cold
There are likely two factors in her return, both of which are instructive. The Internet forgets, and nuance finally developed. In his book, Ronson laments the fact that he has been part of many public shamings, and cannot remember the identity of most of his victims. Many of those involved in Sacco’s shaming probably forgot about her as quickly as they hit the send button.
She was also featured in Ronson’s 2015 article, which provided an opportunity for people to understand a larger picture. People were able to see her as the bored, exhausted traveler amusing herself with thoughtless tweets that she was, and not as the ignorant, spoiled, racist, rich brat that they wanted her to be.
Nothing spoils a joke like nuance.
Crisis communications in a Twitter World
One of the key axioms that I recommend to my clients is to communicate from the high ground. Get out of the comment sections. A social media status is better than a comment. An article or blog post is better than a social media status. A book is better than an article. And so on.
Most of those who suffered most gravely at the merciless hands of the Internet did so because they allowed the crowd to control their message, and thus, to define their identity. In such situations, while it is impossible to control the narrative, it is vital to influence it, and the first step of doing so is making the full truth available to the public. Only then is the next step to encourage them to partake of it.
A most common mistake is failing to put your story out there because you believe that nobody wants to hear it. They may not want to hear it, but when they do, and when they discover that their victim is a multidimensional person with a family, friends, hopes, dreams, and foibles, the joy of slaying a monster evaporates.
Is someone else defining your identity to the public? Contact us, and let us help you to make your story your own.
One of the biggest mistakes which elected leaders, especially municipal leaders, make in their communications strategy is failing to maintain an air of authority.
In my article on Crisis and Campaigns in the Age of Social Media, I explain the danger of getting down into the comments and arguing with your detractors. Social media is a very democratizing space. Everyone sounds equally credible in a discussion in the comments. This is good if you are an average person trying to break into the conversation, but it is very bad if you are a person of actual authority seeking to share the truth of the situation with your audience.
In my article, I discuss the concept of The Mayor, a fictional character found in many movies. The dapper, well dressed city leader who rules his city with high minded speeches from behind a large wooden desk.
The Mayor sits behinds the desk. The Mayor gives eloquent speeches. The Mayor writes a column.
The Mayor DOES NOT scrap in the comments
Perhaps you are not able to draw large crowds to your speeches like the Mayor of Gotham City, but there are other ways to speak from authority. The easiest is a blog. You can either have a blog on the official municipal site, or, if there are regulations that make that complicated, you can create a blog on Blogger or WordPress.
Articles on an official blog have an authority that comments or even social media posts do not. They can be referred to as reference material. You are an authority, and you must communicate like one.
In the event of a crisis communications situation, it is absolutely vital to have a proper platform from which to share your message. Having such a platform can prevent a crisis as well. Nature abhors a vacuum, and that is doubly true for information.
As an issue develops, people will find information somewhere. More often than not, when the public accepts erroneous information in a local issue it is not because they don’t trust authority. It is because the authority has not made the correct information easy to find.
People want the truth. They just don’t want to work very hard to find it. Make it easy for them, and make it easy for you. Share the facts from an official, central platform where you can control your message and share accurate information.
Do you need help connecting with constituents or crafting a message to ensure that truth wins out over misinformation? We can help. Contact us!