In my continuing quest to get something positive out of Zebragate, I would like to offer some tips on how you could survive attacks by the feral Internet attack mobs who dare post hurtful things on blogs and Facebook and such. Some of the things that The Lones Group has done in response to the “cyber-mob” provide us with real lessons for online reputation crisis management, and for being willing to provide such examples, I believe we owe them — and their supporters — a real thanks. It isn’t every day that we find such selfless giving from a marketing consultant apparently willing to show all of us how not to react to online criticism.
Be Objective About Whether You’re Winning or Losing
First, you must know exactly how the flamewar is going. It is especially important to know when you’re not just losing, but getting beat down, because you will need to change your tactics.
Thankfully, because these dangerous Internet blog posses put their displeasure into words, Google indexes them all. Or, they’re available in comments, blogposts, Facebook updates, and Twitter updates. If your surveillance shows more comments from supporters than from detractors, you’re winning. Press the advantage. If it’s even, the contest is not yet decided. Work to up the numbers in your favor.
But if there are more detractors than supporters, you’re losing. A greater than 2:1 ratio of unfavorable comments to favorable means you’re getting wiped out, and need to implement evasive maneuvers. At a 10:1 ratio or more, you should immediately consider surrender or retreat, and work on damage control.
It does not matter whether you believe this is fair or unfair. Your own efforts to defend yourself does not matter, because on the Web, what matters is what other people do. Even Google’s groundbreaking algorithm is based on the idea of popularity. You may curse the heavens, decry the injustice of it all, and feel victimized (See more on this below), but you must be totally objective as to whether you are winning or losing the flamewar.
A Google search of “Lones group” reveals that of the 11 first-page results, four are from thelonesgroup.com itself (which gets discounted), and seven make reference to the Zebra lawsuit. Of the seven, six can be characterized as negative, with one post entitled “Is the Lones Group the worst vendor in the world“. This is what experienced flamewar veterans call, “total ownage”. It’s the equivalent of being completely surrounded by a larger army, with more firepower, and your own soldiers defecting to the enemy. Continuing to fight on may seem heroic, but be assured that you are committing virtual suicide if you do.
Do Not Feed the Flamewar
Absolutely the most important rule is this: NEVER fan a dying flamewar. Even if you have won a flamewar, chances are that you took some casualties. People inherently dislike conflict, and just being party to a conflict means that someone, somewhere, even if in the minority, will think badly of you. Once the actual fight is over and winding down, just shut up and stay quiet. Any further action on your part that does not actively defuse the conflict has a good chance of reigniting the conflagration once again.
In this case, the furor appeared to die down after Daniel conceded on the lawsuit and offered to settle. Some of the “ringleaders” of the RE.net Cyber Triad made conciliatory noises, apologized to The Lones Group, and the flamewar appeared to be over.
Until Denise Lones posted this 24-minute video on YouTube:
Just one post referencing that video is now up to 81 responses as of this writing. And there are new comments being added every day, as well as FaceBook updates referencing it (and the video). A quick look through the comments shows that yes, in fact, even more damage is being done to The Lones Group’s brand and reputation. Absolutely nothing good for The Lones Group will come from posting that video and raising the ante even more. Now even people who were sympathetic to Denise have found reason to dislike her — her proposal for a “national task force on cyber harassment” — and those partisans who had begun to tire of the controversy have fresh new red meat to chew on. And chew on. And chew on.
Let sleeping dogs lie is good advice; let sleeping dogs that just finished mauling you lie is essential advice.
Never, Ever Play The Victim
When you’re getting savaged by the feral Internet mob, it is extremely easy to feel victimized. It is perfectly understandable to want to ask for sympathy by playing the victim. Resist the urge. Especially if you’re a business. And especially if you’re in the professional services business, like real estate or marketing consulting.
People may pity victims, but they do not respect them. Even if the oppression was totally unjust, and everyone hearing the story feels sorry for you, you must never ever play the victim. It would in fact be better to do a Charlie Sheen thing and go down in flames insisting that you’re #winning than to start whining about how unfairly you were treated. If you call out the waahmbulance, the chance that a consumer or a prospective client would respect you enough to want to have you advise them on important financial matters is dramatically lower.
This is especially the case if the flamewar erupted due to your bringing a lawsuit against a popular figure.
Reject Bad Allies
In all flamewars and blogstorms, some people will come to your defense. Even people who have no idea who you are, don’t really understand the issues, and don’t really care will buy into one or more of your arguments, and rise up to defend you. Drama attracts drama llamas. Be extremely careful to vet these allies before you accept their help, and be quick to denounce them when they start to make you look bad.
For example, you’re in a flamewar against some guy. The Muslim Brotherhood jumps in on your side, because the other guy is a “Zionist Jew”. Make sure you denounce the hell out of the Muslim Brotherhood, distance yourself as far away as you can, and reject such ‘allies’. It may feel good to feel like you got friends and supporters too, but consider how the neutral party will see that alliance.
Similarly, when your allies start going around making phone calls to people’s bosses, threaten their jobs, and otherwise display obsessive behavior that would make the uninvolved third party wonder if there’s some other agenda at work here, you need to step in and distance yourself from those allies. Not only will people will judge you by the company you keep, but allies with their own agendas are not truly defending you: they are using you to advance whatever agenda they have, and will gladly throw you under the bus to advance it.
When All Else Fails, Apologize
So let’s say you’re in the worst possible situation. You’re getting absolutely hammered in the flamewar, with virtually every single person commenting/jumping in taking sides against you. Your allies are few in number, and behaving in ways that make you wonder if they have some personal agendas of their own. Your attempts to defend yourself have resulted in a dying flamewar springing back into life, and you’re getting beat up even more.
It’s time to apologize. Do not underestimate the power of simply saying, “I’m sorry.” Americans are remarkably forgiving people, if someone just admits making a mistake and apologizes. Do this even if you don’t actually feel contrite, and just fake it if you have to. It will calm the waters down almost instantly, and buy you time to do the reputation repair you will need to do.
You might need to do more than just apologize in words, depending on how badly the situation has deteriorated. For example, if you were Denise Lones, you might have to offer to pay for Daniel’s legal fees as a way to show contrition for “how this unfortunate situation spiraled out of control”. But straightforward apology would go a long way towards defusing the crisis.
So, out of the mess that is Zebragate, we all can learn some lessons on how to survive a feral Internet blogger pack attack. In summary:
- Be objective about winning or losing
- Never feed a flamewar
- Choose your allies with care
- When all else fails, apologize
There are other detailed tactics you can employ, depending on the specific circumstance, but the above steps should help you survive a blogstorm far more effectively than The Lones Group has to date.
Your questions and comments are, as always, welcome.