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How to deal with internet trolls and influence brand opinion

Journalists aren’t the only ones to suffer at the hands of online outrage from social media followers. Nevertheless, the example of Guardian columnist, Owen Jones, provides an ideal case in point.
Over the course of two or three years, one of Jones’ internet trolls has been a guy called ‘George’. During this time, the scribe’s unofficial critic had branded him a racist, homophobe and several other names under the sun. Naturally, the broadsheet writer was less than impressed, and wound up blocking the guy who thought so little of him.
The problem being that, whilst the jury in some parts of the world remains out on whether trees make noises mid-fall if there’s nobody there to hear them, an angry Twitter user can still cause a scene, and reference your name, even after taking steps to prevent them sending direct messages. What happened next is somewhat remarkable, admirable, and a lesson all brands can learn from.
In an unprecedented step, Jones asked ‘George’ to meet him in the pub. For a pint. The pair finally sat down face to face and had what’s best described as a polite but slightly awkward conversation about whether or not the ‘troll’ really believed in what he had written. Here are a couple of quotes that should clarify how things went…
Jones: “Do you really think I’m racist and homophobic????
George: “No I don’t really think you’re racist and homophobic… …You need to start with something like that to get noticed.???
In the end, ‘George’ concedes that Jones is not ‘a bit of a dick’.
All of which brings us to the fundamental reason for our story. We’ve seen every possible brand reaction to social media spats. Domino’s Pizza fell foul of a disgruntled employee who filmed himself sticking food up his nose before serving it to customers. Southwestern Airlines refused acclaimed indie director Kevin Smith a seat because he was too fat, and would need a second ticket to ensure he could fit on the plane (the flight was fully booked). Kevin Smith took to Twitter and his 1.6million followers to complain. Even Facebook isn’t immune; a now-infamous change in privacy policy gave the network irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive worldwide rights to any content posted. A huge backlash ensued.
In these cases the same thing happened. Apologies were issued, Facebook changed its terms of service back, Southwestern offered Smith compensation, and Domino’s’ CEO went on camera to make amends. None of which seems to be relevant to the tale of Owens and ‘George’. Trolls are not unhappy customers, and unhappy customers are not trolls. But appearances can be deceiving.
Owens may not have apologised for apparently offending ‘George’, he didn’t need to, but he acted in the only logical way; putting himself in the shoes of the ‘troll’, and trying to see things from his point of view. Replace ‘troll’ with angry customer, and hopefully you begin to see what we’re talking about.
If not, let’s put it a little more succinctly:
When people get angry and lash out on social media they’re usually in one of two camps. Either service or products have not lived up to expectations, or they simply want to wind someone up. Whichever applies, the worst thing you can do is lash out in response, or ignore the situation altogether- like Toyota did when its advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi, decided to enter the brand’s own competition to win $15,000 because of a lack of entries. They won, people understandably got mad, and eventually the successful video was removed, but nobody at the car giant acknowledged the situation.
Do nothing at your peril, then, think about how to respond calmly, and, if necessary, make an apology for causing any offense, or at least clarify that you can see things from the other side of the fence. Oh, and if you want to see the full meeting between Owens and ‘George’, here it is… A word of caution, mind; it does contain some pretty blue language.

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