Brands that post controversial content usually intend to provoke conversation — but what happens when the conversation crosses the line into harassment, bullying, and hate speech?
Every now and then, a brand tries to get edgy on the Internet — and inadvertently brings out the real edgelords to play.
We got a great case study of this phenomenon earlier this week when Burger King UK shot out a spicy tweet about the sexist trope of women belonging in the kitchen on International Women’s Day. Whether the content was ill-advised (or simply poorly organized, with more equality-oriented content buried in a thread below the sexist statement) or not isn’t the point of this particular post. What happened to many women in the resulting thread — threats, verbal abuse, harassment, and hate speech — is what raised our collective eyebrow.
Burger King, after tweeting an apology, finally deleted the tweet that caused the firestorm, but the damage for many was already done.
We decided to delete the original tweet after our apology. It was brought to our attention that there were abusive comments in the thread and we don’t want to leave the space open for that.
— Burger King (@BurgerKingUK) March 8, 2021
The company’s actions raised a pressing question:
Are brands responsible to follow up on conversations they start on the social web? Especially if those conversations are engineered to be controversial?
Another example lingered on for weeks over this past summer, when a spotlight hovered over Richmond, Virginia, as the city council and residents conducted a very public battle over the town’s monuments to the heroes of the Confederacy.
As Black Lives Matter protesters “recontextualized” statues of generals who had fought to uphold slavery, covering them in layers of vibrant graffiti, longtime residents were anxious and upset about what they saw as the town’s important links to its history — warts and all.
The topic was as hot-button as they come, and when the local newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, updated its Facebook page with posts about its relevant news coverage, readers of all political persuasions were certain to weigh in.
And as they began weighing in, the Times-Dispatch checked out.
Facebook comment threads devolved within minutes to shouting matches. GIFs of waving Confederate flags and name-calling of the “boomer/Karen” genre populated like rabbits. Readers of liberal and conservative persuasions alike piled on to subthread after subthread with ferocity. And while the Times-Dispatch’s name was still attached to the content, its staff were nowhere to be seen nor its voice — presumably one of moderation and service to its community — anywhere to be heard.
Similarly, Architectural Digest often posts on Facebook about celebrity homes. When the home happens to belong to an LGBTQ couple or individual or a person of color, the comments section invariably includes hateful speech, from crude humor and dehumanizing statements to outright bullying and ad hominem attacks. (A recent post on the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s chicken coop saw fat-shaming of Oprah and calling the royal couple “idiots,” “garbage,” and… well, you get the idea.)
And again, aside from the original text accompanying the post, Architectural Digest lets its readers tear into its interview subjects and each other with impunity.
Aside from a too-little-too-late takedown from Burger King, big brands often instigate conversations around tense topics with the woefully naive assumption that the ensuing conversations will go well — then refuse to moderate bullying and harassment on their social pages. Consumers get hurt, and brands are the origin point of that hurt — all for the sake of “fake Internet points”, be that Reddit karma, Facebook reactions, or retweets.
A BETTER WAY:
Before posting that hot take from a branded account, most brands could use some careful internal deliberation with PR loud and proud in the room. After all, the fallout of a bad tweet is a PR problem, so PR can be counted upon to generate preemptive solutions. Internally, marketing decision makers must learn to listen to all voices — especially those of marginalized community members — to polish the content until it shines. Make sure everyone at the organization feels comfortable speaking up. Solicit challenging feedback.
Once your team has made every possible improvement to the proposed content, decide who’s going to be monitoring social accounts in the hours immediately following its publication. This is not a job for your 20-year-old intern! The person monitoring the activity on this specific post should understand conflict resolution, should be experienced in conversational de-escalation, and should have the authority and experience to change wording, ban or block users, and respond to consumers who are being bullies or being bullied. This careful, constant monitoring should continue for as long as it takes for the heat to fade; edgy posts can linger for days in the public mind, so be prepared to assign post monitors in shifts if need be (especially if you’re posting for an international audience).
If you don’t have enough experienced staff to monitor and respond to comments, don’t allow comments on the post, or limit comments to trusted followers only.
As always, unless your brand is built on rudeness and division, encourage civility between commenters (a.k.a. your potential customers) at every opportunity. Step in to help moderate tone and language when consumers are being attacked. Model good-faith discussion techniques for your online followers. When you encounter a bad-faith actor — fake accounts, troll accounts, hate speech accounts — ban, block, and don’t look back.
Most important, don’t be a bystander on a thread you should own, allowing your customers to be victimized on your watch. If you start and maintain good, robust branded conversations, the Internet points will follow!