As much as we try to please all of the people all of the time, there may come a point when a company or organization finds themselves the subject of a targeted attack. This is a tactic used by activists, usually as part of a larger campaign. The basic structure of a targeted attack starts with a small number of individuals, either online or in person. Planning happens via email or on a closed forum where the company in question can’t be tipped off by their regular web searches. At an agreed-upon day and time, the core members—along with any recruits they made before the launch—will start tweeting, Facebooking, or otherwise asking for their friends to help them signal-boost a message to the company or organization in question. If the campaign is a good one, has multiple supporters, or is part of a popular movement, it will gain momentum with people joining throughout the day, possibly over several days. Ideally for the activists, the campaign will catch the interest of journalists and popular bloggers, getting them more attention, more followers, and increasing the pressure on you. It is important to note that this targeted attack constitutes multiple accounts, sometimes a dozen, sometimes several hundred thousand, tweeting, Facebooking, or sharing the same or a similar message all targeting your company or an employee of your company. One or even a handful of angry people is a customer service issue. While customer service issues are important, they are not the same thing as targeted attacks.
In a targeted attack, messages pour in, impeding regular business and derailing any campaign(s) you may have active. PR or marketing staff who aren’t acquainted with a campaign like this will be easily overwhelmed, and increasingly likely to make serious mistakes. How you handle a targeted attack can mean an increase in business in the long run, or a huge hit to your overall likability and customer retention. Having been on both sides of this kind of campaign, I can say that it can be a very effective tool to bring awareness to a company that will not listen to the community in any other capacity. Targeted attacks should be in the activist arsenal between petitions and picket signs and should only come out when the former has failed and the latter looms imminent.
If you find yourself the subject of a targeted attack, there are several things you can do, depending on the legitimacy of the claim, and the influence or scope of the activism in question. Before it comes to this point, it is essential for a company to inhabit relational marketing spaces and be likable. Your first day on social media should not be spent on defense or cleanup. In addition to likability, your Facebook, site comments section, forums or any other place people can post on your site (as opposed to mentioning you on their site, which would belong to them) should have a disclaimer that all comments are at the discretion of the company and can be removed for any reason at any time. This disclaimer can be as simple as a single sentence, or as complicated as a long section of guidelines and rules regarding exactly what actions would get someone removed from the page.
This way, a small attack can end before it begins: Simply delete all related comments. You have a right to keep the discussions on your page on topic, and targeted attacks are never on topic. If, however, comments and posts on pages you don’t own such as personal Facebook pages, personal twitter pages, or blogs continue to grow, it is time to move to another step. If you have a crisis communication toolkit, have it out and available. Momentum on the Internet can gather amazingly quickly. Chances are if you are not a large organization it will not come to this.
If the campaign is making blatantly false claims, legal intervention may be an option. Talk to your legal team for more information on this. Weigh the pluses and minuses.
If the campaign is making legitimate claims, agree to meet with them if they call off the attack. Whatever stops the momentum and gets the conversation back into the personal realm. If the claim is legitimate, but the organization is not, choose a highly respectable third party to stand in for the organization making the claim. For example, if the organizers are a group of bloggers concerned about racial discrimination, it is appropriate to call in the NAACP to moderate a meeting, or to meet with the NAACP, or a local NAACP chapter instead of the bloggers. Show that you are concerned when your customers or clients are concerned and emphasize that you are committed to your core values. Always speak from the position of fulfilling your company promise, nothing more, nothing less.
Organizers will ask for participants to remain civil in their messaging as any amount of abusive language or off-topic talk can ruin a campaign’s legitimacy, but this is a difficult thing to maintain. Some members will break ranks and become abusive. Be prepared for this mentally, and make sure that your staff isn’t becoming overwhelmed. Especially if the campaign has identified the personal email, Twitter, or Facebook accounts of some of your staff members. Trained professionals can become burnt out in these kinds of circumstances. Take care of your people and they will take care of you. Emphasize team work and company spirit. Move fast, but make sure every message is carefully vetted, and every letter is being scrutinized.
If you can keep to company values and show that you care about your customer first and foremost, you can turn this storm into an opportunity for growth. Even if it alienates non-customers, you can double down on serving the community who actively support you already.