How to deal with social media mobs

Sean Murphy

In any crisis, the narrative that develops will determine your fate. That’s because virtually anyone can use social media to manufacture a story that “sells” simply by cherry-picking facts and spinning them into a narrative that offends people at their emotional core. If you’re the target, your best chance of survival is to answer in a way that satisfies the public’s need for a just outcome. Do that, and they’ll likely move on to a more interesting story. Act defensively and they’ll scream even louder. You’ll likely have just one opportunity to get it right.

Reaching The Flashpoint

A major challenge in dealing with a crisis today is not often the crisis itself, but rather that a moralistic story of the crisis can catch fire quickly and an angry mob can form on social media platforms seemingly out of nowhere. A bad response can feed the mob. So can a delayed response, or a non-response. That means having one chance to get it right—and it must be right now.

How do you issue an effective response when there’s no time to study what happened, and no collective sense of due process? The answer lies in understanding the psychology of online mobs, all of which share these elements:

    1.      A triggering event.
    2.      A story is published that spins into a narrative that engenders moral outrage.
    3.      A lack of faith by those following the story that justice will prevail.
    4.       A flashpoint is reached. Anonymous, uncredentialed individuals post false information, unfounded                  opinions, and moralistic posturing—feeding each other’s speculations and calling for action in the                  name of justice and the public good.

If all four elements are in place, you’ve reached a point where calls to reason and a measured response are typically met with increased fury.


Averting The Angry Mob

Your initial response is your single best opportunity to keep that first published story from escalating to the flashpoint. And this is where most organizations get it wrong.

Common sense often dictates that, following an incident, the goal should be to quickly explain how it happened, assure people it won’t happen again, and to express the proper emotions, such as outrage, regret or sympathy. But in a crisis, so-called “common sense” can lead you out of the frying pan and straight into the fire; such responses can often appear self-serving, disingenuous and misdirected. The mob is scanning for anything that sounds defensive, looks like blame shifting, or appears to be over-explaining to justify questionable actions. They conclude it is their duty to keep their communities safe by “teaching you a lesson.” This is the engine that drives social media mobs.

Knowing that, the core purpose of your response following an incident should be to assure people that justice will prevail. If you can land the message that there will be a fair, diligent and open process in order to identify the causes and prevent similar incidents in the future, the mob will likely go searching for more interesting stories.


Crisis Readiness

While a crisis may not be completely foreseeable, you can always plan for it. The first step is to establish unassailable operating standards that are in synch with current social mores and that can withstand public scrutiny. The second is to have a nimble crisis response mechanism and plan that anticipates the scenarios your organization is likely to face.

This type of planning is critical to every C-suite leader and company board member charged with enterprise risk management responsibilities. And it’s essential for any organization concerned about its reputation and the value it represents.

In responding to any incident, your goal should be to establish and maintain a reasoned response that engenders a similarly rational reaction among your stakeholders and the public. If you put the crisis readiness standards and procedures in place before an issue occurs, you can prevent the angry mob from forming in the first place.

 To learn more about crisis readiness and managing social media mobs, contact CSI today.

About the author:

Sean Murphy is a strategic communications counselor with extensive corporate reputation and litigation/crisis communications experience. Sean has worked with a number of leading organizations, across a wide range of industries, on public communications challenges presented by high stakes and high-profile crises cases.

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