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Guide to Surviving Feral Internet Mobs

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More dangerous than a pack of feral bloggers...

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.

Conclusion

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.

-rsh

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Rob Hahn
Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent post!

    I would add that if you see yourself heading into bad times post about THE issue & the basic facts & acknowledge that you are in a tough spot. Don’t ignore them for 3 days, then come out with a long video that clouds the issue with other items.

    Keep things simple and batten down the hatches!

  2. Agree with Eric. It’s something I learned at Zillow — set the FACTS straight in all conversations occurring online, but people are entitled to their opinion. Lots of agents hated Zestimates back in 2006 and 2007 (and i guess still today) and were (and still are) very vocal about that. If those opinions are based on the correct facts, then so be it.

    In the lones case, I don’t think posts were written with incorrect facts. If so, Denise missed her opportunity to set the record straight by engaging in those conversations as they happened. Social media is about real time dialogue; anyone who understands that knows she should have been involved in every conversation acknowledging people’s opinions and clarifying things that were based on incorrect facts or assumptions. But she chose to ignore them instead and post that video, which only made the situation worse.

  3. Rob, great points all and one! If a complete outsider were to have followed #ZebraGate from start to finish (when ever that might be) and read both the suit, the Mob response, Daniel’s post(s) and Denise response, who comes out smelling like a rose over and over and over? Who has trashed themselves? It’s just a shocking example of how NOT to behave, both before, during and after an issue. Text book perfect example actually.

  4. it is also very interesting that not a single post, comment or response has come in, from what I see, in support of Denise. On her own YouTube video, there isn’t a single comment and any comment requires moderation approval. Does this mean that not a single positive comment has been posted? things to ponder.

  5. Rob, wonderful read and so true re: #zebragate. I must admit I was pretty worked up over the YouTube video and wanted to crank out another blog post, but then I thought, why beat a dead zebra?

    Thanks for wrapping this “real world” example up in any easy to understand digest. And yes, pick your allies carefully…. apologize often, and attack the behavior, not the person. Bravo.

    One final note, are you the leader of the pack? LOL.

  6. Long time reader, first time commenter. Great post (as usual). Thanks for wrapping #zebragate up into some great tips everyone can learn from. Now we can all move on to more important issues (like helping Japan) and leave her with (in my opinion) her forever tarnished zebra brand… you reap what you sow!

  7. More of the sturdy, lucid reasoning that makes this blog a rare delight. My favorite take-away lessons: “never, ever play the victim” and master the power of strategic silence (implied.) “Let sleeping dogs that just finished mauling you lie is essential advice” (delightful.) Also, don’t point out to a mauling dog that the thing it thinks is a snake is actually its own tail.

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