Public relations

Online trolls' insults make bad PR

Contributing ColumnistApril 29, 2013 

The old saying is wrong. Just like sticks and stones, words can cause pain.

And they can hurt your business.

The Internet has given us all the ability to share our voices both publicly and anonymously. Social media amplified that and has created a new breed of Internet user known as the "troll."

A troll is someone who attacks others online for fun. They seek attention and look to wreak havoc just for kicks. Often, their perceived self-worth is tied to how much attention they get for their actions.

Trolls delight in insulting, shocking, upsetting and provoking others, said Andrea Weckerle, author of Civility in the Digital Age.

How do they do this? They may write inflammatory content, insert irrelevant information into online exchanges to derail those discussions, and post shocking images that are often doctored.

Most trolls hide behind pseudonyms or post anonymously, said Weckerle, who is also the founder of nonprofit organization CiviliNation that looks to reduce online hostility and character assassination.

Trolls often act alone, but they may occasionally band together.

Weckerle outlined five types of trolls:

Spamming trolls: These people make the same post to many platforms.

Kook: These regular members of platforms consistently post irrelevant comments.

Flamer: These users make inflammatory comments.

Hit-and-runner: These trolls stop on a platform, make one or two comments and then disappear.

Psycho: These people have the psychological need to hurt others in order to feel good.

We have all observed troll behavior online, so what can your business do if you come under attack?

First, remember that social media matters. Companies frequently ignore posts on social media, but those can quickly turn into headaches.

Remember, too, that a customer complaining about your business, regardless of whether it's justified, is not a troll. A troll is just looking for some fun and wants to create chaos.

Once you recognize a troll as a troll, don't be afraid to restore order. Weckerle offers this two-part approach:

Ignoring trolls: Trolls seek attention and want responses. Don't spend your time giving them a reasoned one. They aren't going to listen to your well-articulated response or requests to stop. It will only give them fodder for future attacks. So ignore their first attacks. That's easier said than done, of course, but don't provide them with that satisfaction and creditability.

Disempowering trolls: You can also remove trolls' comments or block them entirely from online platforms. Most reputable social networks have reporting mechanisms, and every online community has expectations for civil behavior. You should post guidelines for acceptable community behavior on your online platform, and then don't hesitate to remove offending comments.

This is no guarantee trolls will stay away. They may be quiet then resurface, and it could escalate into a continuous cycle.

It's important to address those trolls who are consistent problems. A recent survey in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication suggests trolls may have influences on people's opinions when they visit sites. That can create doubts about your company, so you need to neutralize them.

Ann Marie van den Hurk is an award-winning, accredited public relations professional and principal of Mind the Gap Public Relations. She proudly called Lexington home but now lives in North Carolina. She is also the author of the book Social Media Crisis Communications: Preparing for, Preventing, and Surviving a Public Relations #FAIL. Email her at, or follow her on Twitter at @amvandenhurk.

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