Crisis and Campaigns in the Age of Social Media

By Michael Whitehouse

In the old days, it was uncommon for a scandal to hit an organization or for a rumor to circulate which would cause problems. It was quite an event when such a thing would happen, but something has changed in the broader culture, and now scandals break on any day that ends in Y. Social media has democratized information and ideas and the concept of “my opinion is as good as your facts,” is pervading people’s thinking. All of this makes a social media crisis more and more of a possibility for everyone.

In 2018, I have worked on campaigns to counter erroneous information or witnessed misinformation campaigns in environments as diverse as local politics, geek conventions, and community businesses. Justice Louis Brandeis famously said, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” The best way to combat bad information is good information, but that can be a challenge in a world where people doubt authority, think the Earth is flat, and believe vaccines are dangerous.

Throughout this year, I have worked with a number of re-information campaigns to save organizations and to fight for good electoral causes, and there is quite a bit to be learned about the new social media landscape. Below are some simple tips for community leaders, elected officials, and business people who may find themselves dealing with misinformation online or even in the middle of a firestorm themselves.

In this article, we discuss some specific concepts, but the most important strategic principles are those such as knowing your goals, rallying your supporters, taking the high ground, and learning from your opponents.

Don’t Be An Asshole

If you have actually done something wrong and the lid of the cookie jar finally smashed down on your hand, this article is not for you. If you are in the middle of a firestorm because you have committed a crime or conducted yourself in an immoral way, then the truth will not set you free, and you do not deserve it to. All of my advice has to do with propagating the truth to combat rumor and falsehood. If rumor and falsehood is your shield, you will more likely find me on the other side of the issue from you.

What is the litmus test for if you are on the right side or not? It is this: let us imagine that you have a magic wand that allows everyone in the public to know everything you know. By waving this wand, they learn the facts of the situation, the background, the extenuating circumstances, the nuances, everything. If that would cause them to support your side, then I can help you. If it would cause them to condemn you, then I cannot help you. The only right thing to do is to confess, apologize, and accept the consequences of your actions.

So what sort of situations am I talking about?

In November, Groton, CT was considering a charter revision. I discussed some of the issues with that in this blog, which centered around the fact that the document itself was catastrophically flawed. The campaign to oppose it was not about taxes or government authority or anything else. It was about the fact that the document proposed was written incorrectly and would not function. The more people we could explain this basic truth to, the more who would vote against it, and ultimately we were successful. The referendum failed in 7 out of 7 districts.

Right now, a business in Westerly is the center of a controversy. Amigos Taqueria Y Tequila employees wore T-shirts on election day that said “86 45”. 86 refers to the restaurant lingo of throwing something out when it is rotten or unsatisfactory, and 45 refers to President Donald Trump, 45th president of the United States. The expression is commonly used among some Trump opponents and is generally understood to indicate impeachment. However, State Senator Morgan interpreted the shirts another way. She decided that they were advocating assassination of President Trump, and the rallied her supporters to boycott the restaurant. Since then, the restaurant has faced harassing and racist messages on the phone, email, and Facebook.

A small town, that I’ll refer to as Smallville, needs a new public safety building. The police are in what was supposed to be a temporary building and have been for many more years than was intended. A good plan is on the table to construct a proper building that will serve all of the town’s public safety needs both today and in the future, but false information is being circulated suggesting that the current building was poorly maintained, that the new building is not needed, and that the new building is being funded improperly. None of these things are true, but collectively, they may cause the town to reject the bonding that will give the town the facility it needs. (This example is actually an amalgam of a couple of cases, so don’t try to figure out what real town Smallville is.)

These are just three examples of the kind of situations I will be discussing. You are about to learn some strategies that are very effective in dealing with and defusing these situations. Should you find yourself in such a situation and need additional assistance or consultation, I encourage you to reach out to me by email.

Put Yourself in the Shoes of the Public

If you are in a campaign to correct misinformation, you must first know what you are trying to do. You audience is not your opponents, it is the public. Your opponents are the ones who will be commenting on your posts and writing letters to the editor, but the silent public are the ones who are taking it all in and drawing conclusions. They probably came to this issue knowing little or nothing about it, and they are probably receiving this information out of order in a confusing jumble.

It is easy to forget, knowing all the background that you know, being as engaged as you are, that the audience you are trying to reach may know nothing at all about this situation, or, worse, their initial information may be incorrect.

Lacking information, people will often fill in the gaps with information from unrelated events. When an individual is accused of sexual misconduct, the public may fill in what they don’t know from other high profile situations. In a situation like Smallville’s public safety building, people who know nothing may fill in the void with a story from another town that wasted taxpayer money on a crappy building.

Before you can inform, you need to understand how they are already misinformed. In a situation with an active misinformation campaign, it is even more difficult because you are starting out behind. The misinformation campaign has already started getting their message out before you have acted, and you, having lost the initiative, are forced to react.

Know Your Goal

It is very easy in the instant gratification mindset of social media to think that your goal is to be right and prove your opponent wrong. This is rarely your goal, and will often work against your interests.

What is your goal? Often in politics, due to the fact that it plays out in votes, it is obvious such as “get the referendum to pass.” Other times it may be something else such as preventing an event from being cancelled or maintaining solvency of an organization. Sometimes your goal presents itself in terms of the opponent’s goal: make the campaign of harassment stop.

Choosing the correct goal is a very important strategic step. If you have no goal, then you have no chance to achieve it. You opponent certainly does have a goal, and if you have none, they will invariably achieve theirs.

In the case of Amigos that I mentioned above, they have a choice of goals to consider. They can choose a passive goal: make this controversy die down and return to simply being a successful restaurant. They could also choose an aggressive goal: discredit Senator Morgan, cause her to lose her next election, and build the business by building strong ties to liberal groups and customers.

Two very different goals which would suggest two very different game plans. Whichever goal they choose, the steps and tactics that follow would be very effective, but the way they would implement them would be different.

Whatever your goal is, know what it is. When we campaigned against the Charter Revision in Groton, we knew that our goal was winning the vote. It was not to discredit our opponents or to be “right.” In fact, we had no desire to discredit or alienate our opponents, many of whom were friends and members of the community that we would work with on the same side on other issues. Our opponents wanted what was best for the town just like we did, but the information that drove their choices was inaccurate. By focusing on the goal, we were able to achieve it most effectively and with minimal acrimony.

When I was on the team working to save Wicked Faire, our goal was to make sure that Wicked Faire ran, preserving the investment of our attendees and vendors who had put thousands of dollars into it which they would not have gotten back. The goal was precise. We were not trying to save the company that ran Wicked Faire. We were only trying to save the event.We remained focused on the goal, and, through hard work and good discipline, the event was highly successful. In the efforts that followed, goals became unclear, discipline was lost, we failed to follow almost every tactic discussed below, and the results were predictably catastrophic.

Prevent Misinformation By Keeping Information Flowing

This advice is primarily for elected leaders dealing with political issues, but you may find it relevant for other situations as well.

The best way to prevent a misinformation campaign from taking root is to be proactive in pushing out correct information. If you are an elected leader of any kind, whether it’s mayor, first selectman, or even non-profit leader, you should have a blog or newsletter or some other platform from which you can regularly communicate with your constituents. Through this platform, you should be sharing not only what is happening now, but early stage concepts for what may happen in the future. At the very least, with a situation like Smallville’s public safety building, people should be informed that there is a problem which must eventually be solved, so that when they hear that millions of dollars are needed for a solution, their reaction is “finally we’re doing something about this,” and not “wait, what do you need all this money for all of a sudden?”

Many elected officials have rules governing what they can and cannot say regarding upcoming referendums, but for the most part that only applies once a referendum is on the calendar. The rules are generally not intended to prevent leaders from sharing background information with constituents, and, in fact, they are encouraged to do so.

Get Your Team on the Same Page

The most important thing when you are actually telling the truth is to sound like you are telling the truth. With organized misinformation campaigns, there is a certain phenomenon which occurs that causes those seeking to misinform to sound more truthful than those who are actually telling the truth. It has to do with organization. Those who are organized to misinform have taken the time to get their whole team on the same page. Every detail aligns and checks out against anything that anyone else would say. People are programmed to believe that if they hear something from multiple sources, it must be true, and misinformation campaigns take advantage of this to transmit their message from multiple sources.

People who tell the truth, on the other hand, do not take the time to coordinate their stories. Why would they? Their story is the truth. However, everyone has their own perception, so there will be subtle differences between what each person says. Some supporters may be honestly mistaken in their facts. Some supporters may have different priorities as to what is most important.

In the old days, scandals were handled through press releases, press conferences, interviews with key people. Now they play out through social media where anyone with a smartphone can get into the fray. This means that your opponent’s crackpot ideas sound just as legitimate as your properly researched ideas (we’ll discuss that in a moment), and it also means that anyone from your side has the same megaphone.

Speak From Authority

I want you to think about movies that have a character of The Mayor. The archetypal Mayor is a person of great esteem and respect. He sits behind his large wooden desk and leads the people of the City. Whether it is a good guy or a bad guy, there is prestige to the office. There is respect.

Most importantly, The Mayor does not argue with people in comments.

I’m going to repeat that, and you may wish to print it out and put it on your wall.

The Mayor does not argue in the Comments

The archetypal Mayor gives speeches. He gives interviews. He writes a letter to his constituents. He speaks in platforms that respect the authority of his office.

Whatever your position, be like The Mayor.

What do you do if you are not in a high enough position to get people to come to your speeches or be interviewed in the paper on this issue? Create your own podium. The easiest way is to have a blog. If you find yourself embroiled in an ad hoc misinformation campaign, as opposed to a political one, at least create a web site with Q&A information that directly addresses the false ideas with truthful ones.

This serves a number of purposes.

First, it gives your supporters the information resources to support you. There are likely many out there who would like to argue on your behalf, but without facts to back them up, they’d be torn apart by the other side that has created their own easy reference material. This gets your team on the same page. They can simply link to your articles when refuting inaccurate information.

Second, the comment section is very egalitarian. Everyone is equal. The Mayor and the nutball both just sound like “people with opinions” in the comment sections, and that is not a good situation for you if you are The Mayor whose information is backed up by research, facts, and history, but it’s great if you are the nutball.

Third, every comment you make gives you the opportunity to make a mistake. The best, most informational comment will be seen by a handful of people who happen to look at that sub-thread. On the other hand, should you make a mistake, lose your temper, or otherwise speak poorly, the comment can be screen-captured and shared broadly. 

There is great downside and little upside, and that is why The Mayor does not argue in the comments.

You Can Still Engage

Many reading this may enjoy a role of being among the people. You don’t want to separate yourself from your constituents. You are one of them, and you want to connect with them, and you absolutely should. If you see a comment you wish to engage with, you can do so like this.

I understand what you are trying to say, but I believe you will find that your concerns have been addressed in  this article on my blog where I talk about that very thing. I hope you find this helpful.

All the actual arguments are contained in your blog which you have written with due consideration, had proof read by friends and supporters, and constructed a well thought out argument. The in line comment is simply a friendly rejoinder to consider the facts.

Remember that your audience is not those who disagree with you, it’s those who do not know yet.

Rally Your Supporters

If you are important enough to be dealing with the kind of challenges that we’re talking about here, then you have supporters. If you are an elected official, you have people who helped you get into office, as well as the direct stakeholders in the particular issue. If you are business owner who is under reputational assault, then you hopefully have customers who are fans and support your good work.

When the slings and arrows start flying out of the screen, it can be difficult to remember that you have friends. Often, people will want to keep their heads down so they don’t get lopped off. You or your campaign is a target of verbal abuse, and anyone who steps up to support you will draw fire on themselves.

You may have many friends and supporters out there, but they may not be speaking up because they don’t want to get involved. They also may not be speaking up because they do not know what to say. You probably have friends who are more than willing to come out swinging for you, but they know that to do so without information will do more harm than good.

This is why it is so important to have all of your facts and details laid out in one easy-to-find place. This empowers your supporters to jump in on your behalf supported by reliable information. This lets the public (remember, they are the audience) see that there are many who support you. 

It also does one other thing, the importance of which cannot be overstated. It lets you see that you have have friends. Your opponents are loud, angry, constant, and appear numerous (although usually they are not nearly as numerous as you think), and it is easy to become exhausted and even depressed. Your friends and supports taking a stand with you can be a tonic to the spirit to keep you going.

Get Off Your Phone

Smartphones are great little conveniences. They give us the ability to instantly do hundreds of mediocre things with little effort or thought.

If you are fighting a campaign of misinformation, you need to be better than mediocre.

The natural instinct is to believe that this campaign is unfolding second by second, moment by moment. Every set of eyes that see that comment is one person that may be swayed to the other side. Instant action and constant vigilance are required! In some cases this is true, but very, very few. Frankly, your issue is probably not important enough to most people to earn their constant attention. In most situations you are likely to encounter, developments occur in hours, not seconds.

Do not use your smartphone to monitor the situation. In fact, when I have been working on some of these campaigns, I removed the Facebook app from my phone to remove the temptation. Once you see a comment, post, or article that is wrong, offensive, or simply calls for a response, it is very difficult to put it out of your mind until you have done something about it. It will distract you, eat at you, wear you out and exhaust you.

Or, worse, you’ll answer it. Now you’re not only arguing in the comments, but you’re doing it from a position of disadvantage on a difficult to use keyboard in a buggy app. You are not crafting a clever message. You’re puking some words back. This is how we get errors that are screen-captured and shared.

You avoid this by simply not looking at the social media platforms where the conflict is occurring unless you are at your computer in a proper environment to have time to respond appropriately. Arrange your schedule to give you a few times throughout the day to sit in front of your computer, ideally with some of your team with you, to take stock of the situation, compose articles, and strategize responses.

The Mayor does not argue in the comments. If something does call for a response, link to an appropriate article from your web site or blog. If you do not have an appropriate article, write one and link to it. It provides a greater sense of authority, and it prevents having to answer the same point over and over and over.

Learn From Your Opponents

You may be very good at leading your town or business or organization or event, and chances are that you know far better than your opponents in knowing how to do these things, which is why your information is more accurate than theirs. They, however, are probably better at information and misinformation campaigns than you. This is because most of your focus is on leading whatever you lead, and most of their focus is on opposing you doing so.

They are spending their time and energy to find new and exciting ways to spread their message, inaccurate as it may be. There is a good chance that they are using better tactics than you are. Why take all the time and energy to develop new tactics when they have already invested? Watch what your opponents are doing, and if a tactic is effective, copy it.

I learned about the importance of a central source of information for supporters to draw from when it was used against a campaign to devastating effect. In fact, much of what I have learned is gleaned from tactics I have witnessed to be effective from the other side of the table.

Know the Difference Between Opponents and Enemies

An opponent is someone who disagrees with you on an issue and is working against you based on that disagreement. An enemy is someone who wants to see you defeated.

The difference is crucial, and often confused largely due to the state of national politics. When President Obama was in office, some conservatives would oppose anything he said or did simply because it was him. There was a joke that people wanted to see Obama declare that you should not eat yellow snow because some conservative Senators would insist on eating yellow snow on the Senate floor and declare it healthy just to prove him wrong. 

Of course, it goes both ways. There are liberals who oppose anything President Trump says or does simply because it is Trump. When Justice Kavanaugh was announced, there was an organization that issued a press release by accident in which they declared their opposition to Trump’s nomination of [blank], showing that they were ready to oppose any candidate with the same argument.

In both examples, we are talking about enemies. No amount of facts or convincing or reconciliation will bring them into agreement.

Fortunately, in many cases, especially in local affairs, you are dealing with opponents more than enemies, and an opponent may be willing to back down in the face of new information. In the Charter Revision campaign, there were many people who were advocating a yes vote because they liked the idea of a budget referendum. However, many of those opponents stopped their advocacy when it was explained to them that a loophole in the document would actually nullify the power of the referendum.

It is crucial to present this information to them in a non-confrontational, informative manner. No one changes their mind when being badgered and berated, but if they are approached with respect and an opportunity to save face, good results can be achieved.

When possible, you should always try to get a face to face meeting with the loudest voices on the other side. In the best case scenario, you could find common ground that could allow for a mutually beneficial compromise. More likely, you might be able to show them information which could allow them to see where they are in error. At the very least, you will have a better understanding of their argument and why it is compelling to their audience. You might even discover something you didn’t know, and improve your own knowledge of the situation.

Usually, the best result is their departure from the debate. Rare is the person who is willing to reverse a public position. They would be alienating their associates that they were campaigning alongside, and, unfortunately, in our modern ethos of “us and them,” they would be thought of, not as intellectuals responding to new information, but as turncoats, traitors to their chosen cause. Unfortunate, but true. While few would publicly renounce their position, many people, when presented with information that shows that they were on the wrong side of the issue will at least relent in their active support for the issue.

Crisis and Campaign Communication in the Age of Social Media

Like many things in this fast changing and dynamic world, what I have written here may be out of date the moment I push the “publish” button. However, the concepts that underlie it are robust and adaptable. Know your goals, rally your supporters, take the high ground, learn from you opponents: these principles will serve you in 1918, 2018, or 2118.

Do you find yourself, or know someone, struggling with a communications crisis or social media firestorm? Reach out to me for a free consultation. I am always happy to use my experience to benefit those whom I can.

Fair warning though, I do not help those who create their own crises through immoral or illegal behavior.

Click here to contact us.