Making Negative Press, Flame Wars and Attacks Work For You

April 27, 2009
By Lisa Barone in Online Marketing

It doesn’t matter if you’re an individual, a corporation or if you were just sitting there minding your own business, if you’re publishing content on the Web, at some point you are going to be attacked. Your words will be twisted, your integrity will be called into question, and someone will be waiting in the wings to tell you that not only are you WRONG, but you’re also incredibly UGLY. Basically, you’ll be sugarrae’d.

When the crap hits the fan, you have two choices: Sit there and cry or whore leverage the holy hell out of it.

Listen. Everyone wants to give you advice on how to avoid causing a fire on the Internet. Bruce Clay’s Katie Wertz offered some comment etiquette tips recently and last week Copyblogger had a post seemingly designed to talk people off the blog rant ledge. That’s all very nice and valuable but they both lose sight of two important laws of the Internet:

  1. Fires can’t always be avoided.
  2. Fires shouldn’t always be avoided.

Yes, I’m telling you that sometimes it’s okay to have fires break out on the Internet. Now, don’t go crazy. I’m not saying that you should go out and intentionally cause a reputation management issue, but unless you blog about nothing but unicorns, puppies and regurgitated SEO, those fires are going to happen naturally. And when they do, there’s no harm in using it to get yourself, your company and your blog a little bit of exposure and some more RSS subscribers. Motrin did. Skittles did. Your world will not end.

There’s an old saying on the Internet that you’re nobody until somebody flames you. And as sad as that sounds, it’s a little bit true. When you get your first hit by an A-lister (or simply someone with a much larger audience than you), welcome it. In fact, go buy yourself a nice dinner because it means you’ve probably been doing something right.

Enjoy your fancy dinner. But once you clean that steak bone, get to work figuring out how you’re going to make this work for you. The trick to leveraging fires is to capture some of your attacker’s reads.

How do you do that?

Monitor the Activity

In the early hours after the A-lister’s initial blog rant, you’re going to see a flurry of activity. You’re going to be called an idiot. Your company will be mocked. Everyone will be so morally outraged that it will be as if you kicked Bo Obama right there in front of them. Let the masses work themselves up into a tizzy. Watch as your attacker curses your name and gets their readers all worked up. Read the comments about what an ass you are, how the A-lister is God’s gift to the Internet and how all of those starving babies in Africa are starving because you did that to them. And when the sensationalism has reached fever pitch, bring the conversation over to your blog and start using the fire to heat up your own agenda.

Moving the conversation

It’s nice that your new A-lister friend is getting you all this attention; however, you want it to take place on your blog, not theirs. In order to move the conversation, you’re going to have to put your foot in the fire a little. You’re going to have to address the situation on your blog and give the masses something else to get all hot and bothered over. You’re going to have to write a blog post that addresses what happened, what your responsibility in the matter was and how you’d like us all move to forward.

Maybe you wrote an article that criticized the blogger or you insulted one of their friends or maybe they just woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Whatever it is, explain what happened and own up to any guilt that you may have had. Don’t try to skew things so that you look innocent. The true story always comes out anyway. Use your words to explain things in a way that is calm, logical and soothing. Invite the A-lister to talk to you about the matter offline and out of the pubic eye. They’ll probably continue to whore the situation in public for attention (which is totally fine), but it makes you look like the bigger person. However, if the bigger blogger DOES want to take it offline, make sure that you never, ever say anything in an email, IM or even phone conversation that you wouldn’t want slapped up in a blog post for the world to see. Because sometimes people are jerks and they will slap your private conversation up on the Internet.

Stay calm

The higher profile blogger can rant and rave and throw a tantrum all they want. They already have the mindshare, the larger audience and the credibility. If you want to win this argument in the court of public opinion and avoid being written off as “just a blogger”, you need to remain calm. Be the logical one. Keep your head. Realize that while this is all a game, it’s a game you can win. And it’s in your best interest to keep those emotions in check and to react strategically.

That means keeping your head in your blog post AND dealing with irate blog commenters. If you happen have some extra Xanax lying around, now is the time to pop a couple. Because as soon as you bring the conversation to your house, the crazies are going to swarm and they’re going to do it hard. And make no mistake; they’re NOT going to be on your side. It will be as if a herd of Digg commenters have landed, screaming, knocking things over and zinging you about how you still live with your mother. Regardless of what they say, be gracious and polite. Handle the situation without letting it handle you. This may be where Katie’s commenter etiquette comes into play. It’s perfectly fine for there to be a war on someone else’s blog, you don’t want that on yours. Your blog is above that. Your blog is for intelligent people.

Capitalize on the attention

Once you’ve said your piece about what happened, move on. Both on your blog and in your head. You can’t hold a grudge or hostility toward the A-lister. There’s no time. It’s time to start leveraging the hell out of what just happened.

The biggest mistake you can make is to just shut down. After a crisis, many blogs will go into Operation STFU and hide under their desks until the storm goes away and people stop looking at them. Don’t do this. After a public blog storm, you’re going to have a lot of new lingering eyeballs watching to see what you’re going to do next. This is the time to let loose some of your best content and show people who you are and why they should become fans. Spend the new few days/week writing the best content of your life.

Take unique stands. Be useful. Mimic the type of content they’d find on the originating site, but find ways to make it even better. Don’t pick fights with people to gain attention, but do be the best version of yourself that you know how to be and give those rubberneckers a reason to subscribe and stick around. Capture them.

Too many blogs are afraid of the fires that can break out in the blogosphere. You shouldn’t be. Don’t go looking for them, but realize that as long as you remain the adult in the room, you’re often going to walk away from this a lot better off than when you first started.

You’re no one on the Internet until you’ve been your industry version of threadwatched. Oh, how I wish I knew then what I know now…

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