Sitting on a panel about public failure this past week, the conversation revolved around negative comments and how to handle them online (Image by thebittenword.com). After five years on the internet as an opinionated blogger, I’ve learned a thing or two about negative attacks, comments and behavior from online communities. Heck, I’ve even been lambasted by friends for pointing out that fried chicken causes obesity, which in turn has been scientifically linked to breast cancer.
So what do you do when the fried chicken freaks attack in defense of their beloved fattening dish? This was laughable so I will use it as an example. Often, I don’t find the more malicious attacks to be humorous, though. And I will discuss those in a general fashion.
There are aspects of online confrontations that require reputation management, but there’s also an element of personal survival, too. It’s important to remember you’re the only one who has to live with yourself, and validation through others or the popular crowd does not necessarily equate to living in one’s skin.
Discussing Negative Criticism
It’s important to engage your critics directly. In fact, in my opinion, this is why BP’s social media during the Deep Horizon crisis has failed (see NPR story). You can’t run away from public criticism by simply delivering messages. When the fried chicken thing hit two weeks ago, I discussed this with my critic Jason Falls, and then his many fans, on Twitter.
When you find a conclusion — either agreed upon or in this case disagreement — end the conversation amiably. Meaning, don’t get into heated debates. I was not going to sway Jason and his friends, and the conversation was not worth a real throw-down discussion. So I took my licks and was quiet.
Unfortunately, people will say things to you online that they would never say to your face. When someone attacks me online either publicly or on one of my social media properties and it revolves around an issue, I publicly address it. Usually, the person’s rhetorical tone drops.
If the rhetoric continues, I call out the personal attack. There’s no need to get personal, so bring it back to the issue. If the nastiness ensues, I consider the person a troll (even for one bad day) and disengage. If it’s on my social media properties, I give them a final warning, and then if it continues, they are escorted to the virtual door.
In the case of the nasty pot shot, particularly those that occur in the third person, I usually ignore them. In my opinion, that’s trollish behavior, and reflects on their character.
Our culture and its events breed egos and gossip like water encourages bacteria. Sometimes gossip comes back to you, and it’s mean-spirited, cruel and frankly, just flat out wrong. When a vicious untrue rumor hits, unless it has become public, turn the other cheek.
Ultimately, on a personal level it’s none of your business, and has much more to do with the gossiper’s character than you. It’s important to tell your source your perception of the facts, thank them for making you aware of the rumor, but also to ask them not to bring it up again. Why should you suffer at the hands of someone else’s tongue?
There’s gossip and then there are rumors based in fact. If the rumor is even somewhat true, well then, I suggest owning the factual wrong — either privately or publicly — as a reputation management precursor. But not only that, don’t just say you’re sorry, correct the wrong, address it so you can honestly say that it won’t happen again.
An effective apology means something. An empty one doesn’t. I remember in one case of really poor behavior, someone acknowledged general wrong doing, but said they saw no value in looking at the past. The outcome was not positive.
Anyone who tells you this stuff doesn’t hurt is lying, in my opinion. It hurts a lot sometimes. Sometimes there’s so much negativity, or it hits me in just the right place, I want to die inside. I want to fight back (two a-holes don’t make a situation better), or worse, I just want to tear down my online profiles and never come back. I feel beaten down.
But I’ve learned that none of these reactions help the situation. The internet just accelerates normal brick and mortar life, and no matter what, I will encounter the same situations again later on.
What’s important is having compassion for one’s self, and doing what’s necessary to privately heal. Then come back. In the interim, remain professional and as even-keeled as possible, and if there’s nothing to add positively to the situation, quiet silence is an appropriate reaction.
In the end, people are beautiful. When we navigate these difficulties and continue to bring compassion to bear online and in our real lives, the end result is a better world. In life you fall down and get scars. But you do get back up and the pain fades quickly. So smile and be grateful for all of the positive things in your life. The sun still shines.