Wednesday, April 11, 2018

How Not to PR

Nature abhors a vacuum. An information vacuum doubly so.

People want to know what is going on, especially when they are hearing rumors that something they care about may be affected. In ideal public relations, you will want to practice message discipline, meaning that you do not share extraneous messages, but to also maintain a sufficient stream of information so that people feel informed and have a counterpoint to rumors they may hear.

Silver Phoenix Society did none of these things, and in this article we will be discussing why that organization is a fantastic example of how not to run a PR campaign.

Specifically, we failed to
  • Create a Q&A page on the web site
  • Maintain discipline in address questions on central posts
  • Communicate effectively and sufficiently
  • Remain calm and professional in engagements with individuals
  • Avoid engaging with trolls
  • Create consistent and effective moderation policies

I am going to refer to the organization with a general "we." Obviously, there were individuals in the organization who were trying to do these things and others who were failing to do so. I am not interested in discussing the actions of specific individuals because the purpose of this article is to understand the past and learn from the experience rather than find fault with a group of people who jumped in over their heads to attempt to save something good for the benefit of the community.

Who Does It Right?
If you want to see a great information campaign, look at the Republican agenda. They are brilliant at PR. Can't say I agree with much of what they are saying, but the way they are saying it is quite skillful. They maintain message discipline by ensuring that no one says anything off the script. They maintain a constant presence on cable TV, talk radio, blogs, and online sites. They provide ample, easily available references for anyone who may find themselves in a debate about the issues they are advancing.

It has been devastatingly effective, and it is a large part of the reason why the Republicans control the White House and Congress at the time this is written, in spite of the fact that many of their policies are actively hostile to their base voters' interests.

Silver Phoenix Society had a tough row to hoe. The information they were dealing with was muddled and confused. Due to attorney incompetence and the fact that they were dealing with something that had never been done before, it was not an easy thing to deal with. People understand challenge and complexity, but they don't accept silence.

Allocating Limited Resources
The first thing to note is that any PR team, especially a volunteer team who is also trying to run an organization, has very limited resources of time and energy, so those resources must be managed effectively. Time should be put to activities that will reach the most people for the most impact.

It takes the same amount of time to write a 50 word reply to a comment in a Facebook thread as it does to write a 50 word answer on a Q&A page on a web site, but the Q&A answer will reach hundreds or thousands of people, while a comment reply will reach only a handful.

We would often have to answer the same question over and over because four or five people would ask it. Because we failed to have a proper Q&A platform, even if we answered the first five, the sixth would still complain that we were avoiding their question.

Worse, when you do things quickly and often, you will make mistakes. When you have people actively trying to prove that you are lying, one error out of 100 answers will be captured and used in their campaigns as evidence of your malfeasance. Answering in a proper format allows the time to verify the accuracy of answers provided, preventing mistakes.

This is the age of instant gratification. People are not aware that others exist in the world and do not understand why they cannot get immediate answers to their slightest whim. Automation of resources like Google, chat bots, and others have conditioned people to expect immediate response, and you either need to provide that immediate response or an alternate source for the information.

The correct way to do this would be to either create a Q&A page on a web site or to answer questions in batches in posts on the Facebook page (or both). Then, each question could be answered with a form "Thank you for your question. It has been received and we will do our best to answer it shortly in our next answer series."

How Much to Communicate
Someone asked Gary Vaynerchuk how often you should employ live video. His answer was something along the lines of "Turn on Facebook live now and stay on it."

People want to feel that they are being respected and that their questions are being answered. Even if you answer every question they have, they still have the suspicion that there is a question they didn't think of.

In the future in which we live, anyone
can pull a small device out of their
pocket and be live on the air in
The live video in the week before Wicked Faire was so powerful because it was over an hour long, and Tammy answered every single question presented to her. Unfortunately, this effective strategy was abandoned after Wicked Faire.

The rationale was theoretically sound. Let's not say anything until we have solid information. This would have worked if Jeff's lawyer hadn't dragged a three day process into a three week process, but as the situation started to drag on, we needed to start communicating.

What we should have done was throw back the curtains and say everything we knew as we knew it on an accessible and public forum. Likely, everything was revealed in the aggregate of all of our Facebook comments on various platforms, but that means nothing if people can't find them, and no one is going to dig through hundreds of hostile comments to find their answers.

When information was provided, it was done rapidly and in too short a format. Because 20 words were used where 200 were needed, people were left to try to interpret the tea leaves. A problem in the best of times, but a disaster when there are detractors more than happy to provide their interpretation.

However much you think you know about something, divide that in half, and you'll be closer to the truth.

However much you think other people know about what you are doing, divide that by ten, and you'll be close to the truth.

People are busy and don't have time to keep track of what you are doing, except for those who make it their job to do so, and those people are rarely on your side. It is up to you to keep the public informed, and in that we were ineffective.

Transparency does not just mean having all the information available, it means having all that information in an easy to find format in an easy to understand format. It is not the duty of the public to find out. It was our duty to provide the information to them.

Failing to create Q&As, we should have employed live video and long form writing. These two formats allow you to put out sufficient content that one can accurately piece together what is really happening. It is also important to do this regularly. Content which you think is perfectly clear may be ambiguous to the audience, but if you are doing a weekly live Q&A or a regular blog post, you have the opportunity to correct misapprehensions and even errors from previous releases.

While it is clearly too late to help SPS, this is the reason for this particular writing campaign which you are reading today: to provide sufficient information and context so that people can feel comfortable that they know the real truth.

Keep Calm and Engage On, Except with the Trolls
A troll is a state of mind, more than
a person.
The definition of a troll is someone who enters into a conversation with the express purpose of creating disruption and getting reaction rather than advancing the conversation. Sometimes it is just for fun, and other times it is for an agenda.

A troll is more of a state of mind than a person. Just because someone is acting as a troll in a given situation does not mean that they are a bad person or troll all the time. Some people get worked up online and their worst traits come out. Some have legitimate cognitive impairments that lead them to behave like trolls. When I speak of trolls here, it is not a judgement against the individual, but a set of behaviors that cause a certain situation to deal which. Unfortunately, this situation is common on Internet forums and well worth discussing.

Some trolls have an agenda when they stir things up. They want to aggravate whomever they were dealing with so that they would become angry and impatient and lash out not only at the troll but also at innocent neutral people who were just looking for information. Sometimes a person does not actually have an agenda but is simply lashing out because they are very passionate about the issue or even just deeply misinformed, in which case, the effect can be similar in that the respondent becomes aggravated and may speak in appropriately to others. Either way, the way to deal with it is the same.

It is nearly impossible to get down into deep comment engagement and stay calm. Five different people tried it on the SPS team and every single one, including myself, was worn down and started snapping and getting aggressive. Some lasted as little as a few hours, and the longest lasted about four days before the stress made them ineffective.

As discussed above, people tend not to be aware of people beyond themselves, so when they get an aggressive response, they have no sense of context that the person they are dealing with is coming off of a hostile conversation. They shouldn't have to worry about that either, but the fact is that this makes the trolling so effective. By aggravating the spokesperson, they can flip five or six more people to their side by our own spokesperson's failure.

The only sure fire way to avoid losing your cool in these rapid fire interactions is not to have them, which goes back to the central platform of answers and standard responses. Your rules of engagement must be very clear without exceptions, because the temptation is to say, "oh, but that's just a simple question, so I'll answer it." But once you've answered it, the trolls will be right there saying, "you answered that one, what about this one?"

The best and only way to deal with trolls is just not to do it. Stay out of the comments. (Good advice which I struggle myself to follow.)

Create Consistent and Effective Moderation Policies
People have the right to free speech... on their own platforms. They have no right to free speech on your platforms. You have built your Facebook page, group, forum, etc to have a large audience and no one has the right to use your platform to advance their agenda, especially if that agenda is against you.

With great power comes great responsibility.
The problem is that too many people feel they are entitled to whatever they want. When you delete their offensive comments, they cry censorship. They claim that you are not being transparent when you ban a troll. This is why clear, posted policies are necessary. You may choose what standard you employ with your policies, but stick to it.

Some set a high standard for removal such as "threatening or offensive language" and others set a low bar, banning anyone who just ticks them off. Either one is fine because you own your page and can enforce it as you see fit.

Policies are enforced by people with discretion. The argument against moderation is that it will stifle honest discussion, but it does not. What stifles honest discussion is trolls who turn everything into extremes and consume all the oxygen in the room with their bloviating. By removing a small number of people, a much wider conversation can occur.

SPS failed to do this as well. Comment deletion and banning was inconsistent. A clear policy was never set, except for on the SWPF page which was determined to be only for news about the event itself. The SPS page, however, was a mess. People got banned when someone was frustrated with them. Some comments were deleted while others were left up. More than once, a person with an honest question was banned because the moderator mistook them for being hostile.

It was absolutely an example of what not to do. Clear policies are vital.

What can we learn for SPS's failure in crisis public relations?

  • Create a central source of answers: a Q&A page or regular answer posts.
  • Communicate early and often and even more.
  • Do not engage in comment threads, keep answers to formal channels
  • Have clear moderation rules for forums you control

Nothing can be done to undo the results of the errors of SPS, but it can be a valuable lesson for others to avoid our pitfalls.

1 comment:

  1. On Transparency...

    One thing that became obvious with the leaked chat log was that there was a distinct break between the public message and the actual views of the organizers.

    "We care about the accusers and victims. We want everyone to feel safe. Jeff is not involved in any way" (That last bit was said to me in an message from the Merchant coordinator) Versus what we all saw.

    Ensuring that JM not be present at GKE was characterized by yourself as "Capitulation to evil" and "Jeff has to be involved because paperwork and contracts".

    An unwelcome transparency was forced upon SPS. I believe that's in large part what caused the rapid and hostile fragmentation of support.

    I think a lot of people would have supported the effort if the part about JM being inextricably tied to the contracts was made transparent from the start. The private (If a group chat log can be considered "private" these days...) views of the organizers and the hostility to the victims we all read on those logs are harder to square.

    I don't see how anyone who read that could expect that SPS be capable of running an event where accusations of harassment, consent violations and abuse could be handled in a sensitive or even ethical way. Personal loyalty to JM and your own personal history with the issue shaped your response to the situation in a way that made you probably the last person who should have been brought on board for this effort. You have your talents and bring loads of networking to bear, but also a certain type of negative baggage.

    I'm thinking that maybe you want to walk away from this kind of public posting for a while. Just saying, Mike.

    Not sure if this is "trolling", but there it is.