Should Reputation Management Use Hostile Strategies?
Nothing is more painful than being targeted for abuse, hostility, and negative attention on the Internet by someone who is determined to destroy your reputation.
Anyone who has been the victim of relentless character assassination knows well the feeling of helplessness as complete strangers take up the angry rhetoric of others.
The phenomenon of “social justice” is not really new. Throughout history, angry mobs have formed quickly and taken moral and legal matters into their own hands.
There are stories in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible concerning mob justice.
The Internet creates an environment where people are quick to judge and condemn without much thought.
Hostile parties cultivate online social mobs, inflaming them with angry and outraged rhetoric. While many people may decide they want no part in these attacks, other people willingly join in.
People respond to these kinds of attacks in different ways. It’s fair to say no one has found the perfect solution. Responding in kind may only infuriate more people.
In many situations, the targets of coordinated or persistent hostile commentary may go on the attack, trying to discredit those who speak against them. The publicity and legal representatives of celebrities and politicians frequently react angrily against hostile information campaigns.
But if the goal of the reciprocal attack is to defuse the situation or repair a damaged reputation that may not be the best response to online hostility.
Here’s what you and your clients should consider before launching reciprocal attacks against hostile parties:
Nearly Everything Stays on the Internet in One Form or Another
Whether it’s a blistering news story or an angry rant on someone’s personal blog, a hostile article takes on a life of its own.
Once published, any angry story may attract links from other Websites. The details of the attacker’s narrative may be quoted without attribution by other people.
Worse, a reaction to an initial attack may spawn additional attacks, drawing more attention to an embarrassing and humiliating situation.
The pushback may inflame the angry attacker to the point of launching a relentless campaign of faux outrage, meticulous doxing, and attempts to raise an army of self-appointed social justice warriors.
Everything they write becomes entrenched in social media, archived on the Web, and remains available to future members of their communities.
The angry rebuttals and counter-accusations also become part of the Internet’s semi-permanent record.
They extend the drama.
When Facts Support Hostility, Disputing Them Makes the Client Look Worse
Regardless of whether the client has offered a heartfelt confession or simply denies all wrongdoing, the best defense is not necessarily a good offense.
When truthful – even partially truthful accusations – are made, the instinct to attack the facts or the attacker may feel compelling but the most confusing logic cannot change the facts.
Sooner or later someone will reset the narrative by going back to the original complaint, and then it starts all over.
An effective way to discredit anyone who provokes hostility is to prove they have a self-serving motive for creating the hostile situation. Even if you can prove such a motive exists, if it is anything less than a blatant sin of omission, calling attention to the other parties’ motives may only prolong the dispute.
The representatives of a person or organization under attack are not viewed or received as unbiased white knights. No matter how truthful their rebuttals, attacking the attackers adds to the drama and may cause it to last much longer.
If the World Is Watching, They See Your Client’s Anger and Hostility
No matter how wronged the client may be or feel, people, respond poorly to defensive anger and hostility. This is contrary to what any wronged person hopes for, but the party that is on the defensive is unfairly challenged to prove their innocence.
The principle of “innocent until proven guilty” only applies in the court of law.
In the court of public opinion, anyone accused of wrong-doing is expected to self-vindicate through a rational and verifiable argument based on fact.
This isn’t a fair expectation.
People rarely demand proof that accusations are truthful.
On the other hand, taking the higher ground rarely works. Responding to accusations with silence leads people to infer guilt. Responding emotionally or with anything other than verifiable facts that clearly and obviously disprove the accusations leaves the discussion in an unresolved state.
Worse, an unsuccessful rebuttal invites further attacks – thus extending the drama.
Humor and Wit Can Be Disarming or Harmful
Some people respond to hostility with (what they hope are) clever putdowns. Mocking one’s critics is sometimes effective, especially if they are not dedicated to destroying a reputation and don’t expect a quick, sharp response.
But condescension is a two-edged sword.
It can lead people to feel sympathy for the hostile party. When representatives of celebrities and politicians respond to criticism or accusations with mockery, they are often perceived as heartless shills acting on behalf of people of low moral standards.
Putting down the other person may be easy or come naturally. The putdown may even enter into the popular imagination.
But such responses carry risks that must be carefully weighed.
Even though every situation is different, a sharp-witted response tempered with clear, solid logic may be as devastating as intended.
Famous people from Mark Twain to Sir Winston Churchill are credited (sometimes incorrectly) with disarming their critics by mocking them with both parody and artful logic.
We learn in school that so-and-so responded to his or her critics with deft humor and a devastating wit.
But when you research the details of the lives behind these anecdotes they reveal drama that was neither easily resolved nor completely ended by quick quips and insults.
Perhaps it will be enough for some to be misremembered as saying “yes, I am drunk, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be a fool.”
But your client won’t wake up to a fresh new reputation in the morning no matter how funny and devastating a comeback you publish.
At best, people will enjoy a good laugh.
At worst, your client looks mean and petty while at the same time extending the drama.
Psychoanalyzing Hostile People Is an Exercise in Futility
One of the favor tricks of so-called gaslighters, people who create controversy for the sake of destroying someone else’s reputation, is to paint their victims with their own sins.
If the hostile party has lied about your client, they will accuse your client of lying.
If they act upon ulterior motives they will accuse your client of harboring ulterior motives.
Responding to such attacks with attempts at psychoanalyzing the reasons for such anti-social and unbecoming behavior doesn’t end the hostility. Arguing for the sake of persuading the silent masses to turn their sympathies toward your client extends the drama without resolution.
Worse, someone who is trained in psychoanalysis may jump into the dispute with corrections and counterpoints. Even if their intention is to remain unbiased and “above the fray”, their attempt at correcting inaccurate statements extends the drama and may make your client look worse.
Public psychoanalysis is usually not an effective response to hostility.
An unfortunate consequence of responding to hostile attacks with hostile rebuttals is that the rebuttals may make things worse.
The client’s willingness to fight to the bitter end may be heartfelt and a completely human response.
But unless the majority of public facts are on their side they probably won’t win their case in the court of public opinion.
Reputation management works best after the drama has died down.
Waiting for the drama to end does not mean conceding the war of words. It only means that you’re not provoking further hostility from someone whose attention is focused on your client.
Sooner or later these people turn their attention to other things. The less direct response they see, the more powerless they tend to feel. When they don’t control the conversation, they have less motivation to keep it going.
As long as the client can succinctly provide verifiable facts that defuse hostile attacks, they should.
But responding in kind to hostility is less likely to end the drama.
Once you go on the attack the other person now has two reasons to be emotionally invested in the struggle: destroying your client’s reputation and defending their own.
Regardless of the merits of either side’s arguments, things only escalate when two parties engage in reciprocal character assassination.
The higher moral ground – if it exists and if it can be claimed on your client’s behalf – demands calm, rational, and unchallengeable responses that only deal with the facts of the situation and not the personalities behind the attacks.