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How to handle online trolls

One of the unintended consequences of online anonymity has been the rise of trolling, which now is commonplace across the digital landscape. Representing clients and brands in the public sphere, PRs encounter more trolling than most, and need to carefully consider how to best handle this tricky to tackle behaviour. Say too much and you stoop to their level, but say too little and you may lose the confidence of your audience.

We’ve reached out to seven experienced PR professionals to find out their best tips and strategies on how to handle online trolls.

Take a step back and don’t let it get to you

Leah Archibald, senior PR and content executive at PR agency Herd.

“Though PRs frequently work behind the scenes to orchestrate and deliver content for brands, it’s still your own work that you’re putting out there. When you see comments on articles or social media, criticising your work (and sometimes even you) it’s important to know how to handle and react to this. Trolls can be quick to judge and make a remark when they don’t agree with what they are seeing, aiming to reduce all your hard work in a matter of moments.

“It’s important to take a step back, breathe and take any negative press on board. I mean, most cruel comments will simply be irreverent, but if there’s anything positive you can take from it then they’re doing you a favour. You should always consider another point of view; it helps us improve. But most importantly, don’t let it get to you. You know (as does your client, industry base and work colleagues) know how much work you put into that piece of PR activity.

“Often, blood, sweat and tears go into researching campaign ideas, collecting, and analysing data, lengthy sign off processes and so forth. That’s before you can even think about creating a piece of content or campaign. So, just remember the process and journey you took to get to the finished product. Doing so takes time, effort and intelligence, whilst a single comment from a troll is mindlessly done in a matter of moments.”

Distinguish between real feedback and mere trolling

Anneka Roberts, senior vice president of digital at PR Agency FINN Partners:

“When faced with negative comments, carefully consider each one to assess the potential for constructive dialogue, avoiding engagement with those seeking to provoke drama. It's crucial to distinguish between genuine feedback and trolling to prevent escalating situations.

“Aim to move negative exchanges offline, demonstrating an effort to resolve issues whilst maintaining public confidence. Stand up for yourself when constructive dialogue is possible but avoid prolonged back-and-forth with trolls. In some cases, employing humour in responses can effectively defuse tension and potentially shift public opinion in your favour. Always assess whether the criticism reflects a common perspective or is simply the opinion of an individual.”

Focus on maintaining a positive brand image…

Sarah Woodhouse, director at PR agency AMBITIOUS:

“In most scenarios, we’d usually advise avoiding any engagement with online trolls. Trolling is often found in echo chambers of opinion, the last thing you want to do is amplify or escalate the issue further.

“Instead, focus on ways to disarm trolls and maintain a positive brand image. For example Ryanair, rather than going silent or arguing on social media, is well-known from a PR-perspective for choosing light-hearted humour in its approach to negative reviews, with some posts even going viral. Some may think it’s brave to draw yet more attention to a negative view, but on the contrary, it serves to promote Ryanair as transparent, aware, and in control, which boosts customer trust.

“To maintain a positive image, encourage positive engagement from loyal customers and brand advocates. Cultivate a strong online community by consistently delivering valuable content and fostering meaningful interactions.

“Ultimately, prioritising authenticity, resilience, and professionalism is key to mitigating the effects of online trolling in PR efforts.”

… rather than argue with provocateurs

Rhea Freeman, adviser at PR agency Rhea Freeman PR, “When it comes to trolling, it’s important to remember that it really isn’t about you, it’s about them. The good thing is you can decide how to react. With this in mind, my one tip would be to use those block, hide and report buttons as needed.

“There is no point arguing with a troll as they don’t really want to enter into a debate, so the best thing to do is remove their hateful comments from your field of vision by using the built in tools. It’s not avoiding the issue, it’s giving you the space to serve those who want your help, which is far more important”

Remember that any engagement can be good engagement

Katya Varbanova, brand marketing expert and CEO of agency Viral Marketing Stars: “Unless troll comments are harmful, I recommend keeping them instead of deleting them. Firstly, if all people see is praise on your content, they might become suspicious and think you're hiding something.

“Secondly, if you want to grow your reach and brand, having comments boosts your engagement. What troll comments tend to do is create even more back-and-forth comments on your content, getting you even more visibility. Typically, we advise our clients that if they do get criticism that's troll-ish, they either completely ignore it or they respond with "Thanks for boosting my video in the algorithm".

“Plus, if you're not getting any criticism online, chances are you're not taking a stand for anything. Remember, most online trolls hide behind fake profiles and are terrified of being seen online. Feel sorry for them and let them learn the hard way that trolling you will not make their lives better.”

Trolling is a by-product of visibility in the public eye

Luana Ribeira, business and PR expert and founder of PR agency Dauntless PR: “Anyone going into the public eye must do so with the understanding of three things.

“Firstly, as they get more visible they will attract more people who get them and also those who oppose them. Secondly, the only opinions to focus on are of themselves and their target market, all others are irrelevant. Thirdly, being trolled doesn't mean their reputation is destroyed - it means their message is cutting through the noise

“Once these points sink in on a deep level, they will no longer be ruffled by trolls and will be able to keep a clear mind to assess whether to ignore them or to calmly respond.”

Pineda Ledesma, community manager at PR agency Full Fat:

"Engage your trolls strategically and always have a plan of action.

“Leading by example is key to fostering a positively engaged community. It is important to set clear guidelines on how to approach community interaction, including ways of responding to trolling. Remember, every interaction is an opportunity to shape your brand's image and deliver key messaging.

“When it comes to online trolling, don't always feed the trolls, but pick and choose your battles. Where there is an opportunity to turn negative comments into positive, do interact. For example, suppose a consumer leaves negative feedback or a complaint under a brand's social post due to product changes. In that case, we can use the opportunity to reassure them of the worthiness of these changes and thereby guide them towards a positive narrative."

Unfortunately, facing trolls is an inevitable aspect of online PR. Whether the hateful words are directed at your brand, client, or the outcome of your own hard work, it’s never pleasant to deal with. But, as these professional PRs have outlined, there’s more than one way to handle trolling.

With a careful and considered approach, trolls can be managed without too much difficulty, and it is even possible to turn their hateful provocations into good PR.

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