A PR colleague and I recently discussed a common PR problem: What can PR teams do to combat the online rumor mill?
Her organization was the target of a social media storm that she said was based on false information and rumors that then spurred news coverage which amplified the false narrative. She said her organization had committed to staying above the fray in its response. This meant the delivery of a response that was not confrontational and a deliberate choice.
Sometimes when organizations use terms like “stay above the fray,” what they are really saying is they want to avoid confrontation at all costs. Don’t be so quick to take that off the table as a possible strategy.
Confrontation doesn’t have to be about chest-beating and showmanship. The key is to stand your ground, calmly, clearly and unapologetically. Be prepared to engage in a rational dialogue if that is possible on the other side.
If you do choose to confront false accusations head-on, you need to do a stress test with your management team beforehand. Prepare them for the likelihood that the situation will become more intense before it gets better. Find out if they have the will to carry forward with this approach.
Make sure that before you respond in these kinds of situations, leadership will not weaken at the first whiff of confrontation, which would likely manifest itself in more organized social media storms, more tension in the media and more public protests.
If leadership is properly braced for this, then you can counter baseless allegations through a strategy of more direct confrontation. Consider these tips:
1. Know your message.
In any crisis or issues management situation it is important to develop messaging that appeals on both factual and emotional levels. When challenging baseless allegations, don’t target your accusers on a personal level, and don’t be too quick to challenge their motives. Focus on the allegations themselves.
As you do this, your words must resonate. Show you care about the people who your organization touches: your employees, customers, people in the community. It should be clear that your organization’s unapologetic position on the issue springs out of a care and concern for those very people.
2. Choose the right spokesperson.
Sometimes the CEO is the right spokesperson, but not always. The most important thing to consider on this is whether the person who will become the face and the voice of the organization on the issue has indisputable credibility. That individual should in words and actions reflect the care, concern and compassion for your stakeholders as mentioned above.
3. Choose the right delivery systems.
Just because the attacks originated on Twitter doesn’t mean you should engage there. Your critics chose that forum because it served their purposes.
Before responding, think about where your messaging will gain the most traction. Is it on Twitter or somewhere else, like the organization’s blog, YouTube, or a series of offline tactics like email or face-to-face meetings?
It can be a fundamental mistake to assume that just because the attacks only seem to be coming from Twitter that you can isolate the problem on that channel, or that by only responding on that channel you have found the most effective way to defuse the situation.
4. Tell why.
Make sure that everyone knows what you think by explaining clearly and simply how you came to this place. Many organizations when responding to criticism assume that the accusations themselves (from the critics) provide proper background. These organizations are assuming that the false narrative created by their critics provides the proper context.
Explain the issues and factors your organization had to consider before it came to its current position. Tell what the pros and the cons were, offer up the challenges, and then explain why this position became the right one.
Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy, and he is producer/host of the ShapingOpinion podcast. A version of this article originally appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.