Beware the Brand Trolls

Brand trolling is making managing your online corporate identity even tougher.

By Zeid Nasser

For those lucky enough to have never encountered one, an Internet troll is a person who starts arguments, upsets people, and posts inflammatory messages in an online community. These undesirable personalities are now also attacking brands.

To begin with, when you encounter a comment or posting that’s an expression of anger against your business, it’s important to differentiate between what is a genuine complaint that can be dealt with by a customer service representative, or what is the start of a trolling episode.

The average brand troll isn’t difficult to spot, as their history of comments can be easily found online. That’s why it’s not difficult to identify the nature of the person you’re dealing with even before responding to the negative and aggressive messages. Usually, companies don’t take the time to do this, as responding to grievances of customers online has become an automatic process. That’s fine if the customer service and online communication departments know when to hit the alarm after the first round of exchanges, because trolling can escalate into an all-out attack on your company and brand values if the ideas or issues raised by the troll gain support from others. If that happens, you’ll not only have to worry about dealing with an isolated case of trolling, but also start thinking why your brand or company policies have angered other Internet users.

On social media—the troll’s online playground—the reputation of your product or service is considered fair game. Hunting season is year-round, and you had better be prepared to take quite a few hits. In the Middle East, the mélange of cultures in the Gulf means it’s a huge challenge to understand and analyze customer complaints. While in Jordan, it could perhaps be simpler if methods that have worked before in handling customer feedback locally are repeated and improved upon in the context of culturally accepted norms of recognizing a problem and dealing with it.

But more importantly, you must be careful not to allow your corporation to become a troll itself. Your social media or customer service staff might take things too far by getting angry and end up trolling your own customer base. If you don’t always respond with facts and kindness, no matter what’s thrown at you, then other users will be offended by your excessive use of force, and that’s when you will be viewed as a trolling brand.

And that’s not all, you’ll also be feeding the trolls with your own anger. It would be a case of communication failure on all fronts. To prevent it, make sure your company’s response is based on guidelines and that your own people stick to them.

The summary of advice provided by specialists is to constantly monitor the conversations your clients are having with each other, then join the conversation by tactfully stating the facts and presenting a satisfactory solution if required. If you have actually made a mistake, apologize tactfully and state the corrective action you have taken to end the matter before it snowballs. That’s the point at which responses will be directed at you, and where you must show patience and kindness no matter what the nature of the attacks.

Nothing beats a troll, or bully, as effectively as not stooping down to their level. Don’t give them a battle, but give the rest of your fans and followers a clear explanation. The trolls will then move on to obtain their twisted satisfaction elsewhere.

Psychologists have been studying trolling and their assessment should make companies concerned about what they could be dealing with: dark personalities that show signs of sadism, antisocial behavior, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Clearly, this isn’t a phenomenon that can be dismissed lightly.

This is one of the reasons why the new wave of social media specialists, who you entrust your brand with, must demonstrate experience and knowledge in the sciences of public relations and consumer behavior, plus adherence to your corporate guidelines. It can’t be viewed anymore as a profession for young digital stars, and you can’t accept trial-and-error in handling online reputation.

Whenever we delve into these topics, it becomes even more apparent how much the professions of public relations and customer service have had to evolve to deal with the new realities. A whole new set of skills is required, which has opened up the door to a different type of highly communicative, empathetic, and technologically-enabled professional. It’s another example of how the future of corporate communications and customer service in the digital age will be based on fusing them into a new type of corporate department, tentatively called Customer Analysis and Communications. This could be the organizational method to stop brand trolls in their tracks.