Warning: Don't Feed The Trolls
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Warning: Don't Feed The Trolls

September 14, 2015

by Tony Vidler

The world is a pretty dangerous place today, and nothing is more dangerous than saying the wrong thing huh?

Forget Islamic State, millions of people without potable water, people living on $100 a year…these things don’t matter really. What matters most to the “me” people is that you do not offend them.  Of course the difficulty is that so many are so easily offended and what is “offensive” is often a moving target. Add to that, merely being offended apparently invokes a set of rights akin to forming a posse and hunting down the guilty party so we can hang ’em high!

The problem we have as business people is that the easily offended are everywhere, and only too willing to take to the internet and social media to seek vengeance for any imagined slights or artificial grievances.  For professionals who are reputation conscious in this climate requires real caution, and especially so when engaging with new contacts whom we do not know well.

A recent situation in the UK highlights the issue, and potential impact, from something relatively innocuous and quite ridiculous.  In case you missed it this is the essence of the story:

  • a female barrister sends a Linkedin connection request to a male senior solicitor
  • he accepts the connection request and then sends her an email
  • He wrote in that email: ‘I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture!!! You definitely win the prize for the best LinkedIn picture I have ever seen.’  She responded: ‘Alex, I find your message offensive. I am on Linked-in [sic] for business purposes, not to be approached about my physical appearance or to be objectified by sexist men.
  • Then she took to social media to name and shame the man who had offended her, and next thing it is the biggest story in the tabloid papers.

I totally agree that his message was ill-considered, tacky and unwarranted, and certainly not in keeping with business etiquette.   At best it could be interpreted as a clumsy compliment – Poor form old chap.   At worst it could be considered sleazy – eeeeew!  But that is about it – possibly sleazy….possibly just clumsy.  Whatever the intent, it was however inappropriate.

The subsequent furore is disproportionate however, and has been driven by the decision on the aggrieved lady’s part to “out him” as a sexist and a mysoginist no less.  That’s a pretty big accusation on the basis of that email.  Cynics suggest she was motivated by personal promotion at somebody else’s expense; hence the drive to go public and kick up a social media storm.  Her reaction was disproportionate – and was also clumsy and sleazy.  Detractors are now labelling her a “feminazi” – a term I hadn’t heard before – and to which (surprise surprise) apparently she has taken offence to as well.

It is such a pity for all the women who have genuine battles in this area too.  There IS a very real issue for many women in business being patronised and disadvantaged, but this sort of response to this type of email doesn’t help the cause in general terms.  She just called for an airstrike in on a jaywalker.

UK Writers views on the LinkedIn sexism row

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of this particular incident, there is a lesson here for all of us in business.  Many people today feel that they have a right to air anything that offends them.  Merely being offended is the crime, and that gives them rights in their myopic world to take disproportionate action.  When they take to social media, where for some bizarre reason they feel that all the normal laws relating to defamation are suspended, they become trolls.

The problem as we increasingly use social media, chat rooms, professional forums and blogs such as this to air thoughts and opinions, and engage with our network of friends, peers and clients is that anyone can, at anytime, choose to be offended by anything and then go on the offensive.  At stake is your entire reputation, and perhaps even your livelihood, and we run the risk of incurring the wrath of a troll with each and every post.

Naturally we can reduce the risk if we adopt a plain vanilla, “never have an opinion on anything”, bland persona.  That is no way to live however, and it is certainly not the way to create change and have a positive impact in others people’s lives.  So we must take the risk of offending some folk some of the time simply because we hold a different view and are willing to express it.  We can’t please all the people all the time.

A little while ago I was at a conference and was introduced to an adviser whom I had heard of, but never met before.  Surprisingly, when introduced, he said “ah yes, I know you”. Then turned and walked away.  My host was as taken aback as I was and asked what I had done to offend the adviser, to which I replied along the lines of “nothing as far as I’m aware; we’ve never even met before or spoken about each other as far as I recall”.  It turns out he had taken offence to a presentation I’d given to a conference a couple of years before where the core message had been generally “advisers need to lift their game“. That was offensive to this individual as he felt he WAS at the top of his game.  uh-huh.  Exactly the sort of reaction that someone at the top of their game would have pal. C’est la guerre!

In a more recent example, an academic-sort took umbrage with a blog post of mine, publicly claiming it to be “the worst” he’d ever read.  To be fair I didn’t think it was the best piece I’d ever written, but it wasn’t the worst either – and sure wasn’t as bad as some I’d read elsewhere.  But maybe he doesn’t get out or read very much? It appeared to be at odds however with his own views of how an issue should be tackled.  As an aside, it did seem to generate a few new followers of the blog and a few social media followers for me, so thanks “troll”.

The point is that if we are not challenging the trolls views of the world, then we are not standing for anything of any consequence.  As professional advisers we are expected to think and then express our views as guidance, opinion and recommendations.  It follows that if we are doing our job we will be trolled at some point….there are people lurking out there just looking for their next grievance issue to turn into a self-promotional headline.  So what is the right thing to do when this happens?

Don’t feed the trolls.

Ignore the blatant attack when it is without foundation.  IF you have said or done something which in hindsight shouldn’t have been said then simply apologise and/or withdraw the remark or comments, and move on.  This is damage-control-101 though.  Think of fire-fighting as an example…there are 3 things needed for fire:  oxygen, fuel and heat.  Remove one of the three and the fire cannot sustain itself: it will die. Similarly, when a reputational attack commences, starve it of oxygen and also take the heat out of it, and that fire will die quickly too.

The best strategy of course is to try and avoid blundering in the first place.  Stick to professional courtesies with new contacts; keep it “clean”; and show some respect.  Those looking to be offended by something will still probably find something to be offended by, but it is unlikely to be you.

You may also find this post useful: How to protect your brand and reputation on social media

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Comments (2)

  • Some great points here Tony, years ago I was talking to a woman on the phone ( I did not know her) at some point in the conversation I answered her by saying ” Ok sweetie” well! it was as if I had opened the gates to hell .
    I know that I never meant anything by it, but she was so offended I quickly apologized and we ended the call. A day later, I got called into the MD’s office to explain, she had called him and tried to have me fired. Since then I am uber careful as you never know what triggers a negative response..

    • I know the feeling…we’ve all made the mistake at some point of using terms or phrases with clients that we use in private life…and it can be nothing more than a slip of the tongue. The only thing to do is apologise and move on.

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