I used to run social media for the big home-improvement retailer in the center of a furor over ads on the reality show "All-American Muslim." The company has not advertised after the group The Florida Family Association said the program is "propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda's clear and present danger to American liberties and traditional values."
People have asked me how I would have handled the situation, in which tens of thousands of messages piled up on social media, then were deleted by the company. Here's how: I wouldn't have played it safe, clammed up, and let hate rule the day. I wouldn't have deleted 28,000 comments. I wouldn't have tried to control the message. I would have tried to be a voice of reason. The large majority of people speak that language.
Thousands of angry messages piled up on the company's social media accounts, as critics accused the company of succumbing to a group that practices fear-mongering. Defenders of the company angrily responded, sometimes bashing Muslims. In the midst of this viral acrimony, the company was essentially silent on social media for days.
The company's Twitter profile proclaimed "We never stop tweeting!" But the company did stop tweeting. It didn't post for days, while anger, name-calling, and divisiveness took over. The company didn't post a status update on Facebook for days, and there amassed more than 28,000 comments on the company's careful statement about the situation. Many of the comments were spiteful. The company's social media accounts became arenas of hate.
Today the company removed the line "We never stop tweeting!" from its Twitter profile and deleted the Facebook post with more than 28,000 comments. A new Facebook post explains: "Some of the comments have been sharp and disrespectful in tone, but out of respect for the transparency of social media, we let the debate continue. However, we have seen a large volume of comments become more pointed and hateful. As a result, we have taken the step of removing all previous posts and will more tightly filter future comments on this topic."
Removing hate speech is a no-brainer, but preventing it from building up in the first place would have been a much, much better approach. Deleting an entire post of 28,000 highly controversial comments is no small move. It might appear to be an easy way to make it all disappear, and deny the ugliness ever happened. But it does nothing to actually address the discord that happened on your watch. It just erases the evidence. It's a Not In My Back Yard approach. And it can call into question the integrity of the company's voice, and cause followers to wonder if they are only seeing the positive while the negative is deleted. Big institutions that make unacceptable and controversial speech disappear also tend to make criticism of the institution itself disappear, and that happened here. Along with the hate speech, thousands of complaints about the company's handling of this situation also conveniently went away.
Let me make something clear: I have great compassion for the people at the company. I worked with them. I love some of them like family. I do not envy their situation. I know they would do anything to address the maelstrom on social media in just the right way. But the fact is, there is no perfect way. Discord makes dialogue difficult -- and even more vital.
If a company spends money and time to promote products and its own agenda on social media, it also has a responsibility to engage in real dialogue there when problems come up. I'm not saying you take on all-comers in a no-win debate in front of the world. But you say something. You take responsibility for what is happening on your page. You don't abandon ship because it's scary. You protect the values of the company and you protect the people at risk on your page. You can't run and hide when things get tough, and then re-emerge later to try to make money.
Press releases are the old way of trying to control communications. And that way is gone.
Social media can be an intimidating place to comment on a controversy. I've run campaigns where things went wrong, and tens of thousands of angry comments were posted. When I initially blogged about this last night, it was only a few minutes before people began posting their own opinions about the situation. In a half-hour, posts calling me names and accusing me of awful things came in. It felt like I got kicked in the stomach. I did what the company did: I took the post down, to make sure I was saying things right. I'm not sure that I am. I'm saying them anyway.
Yesterday I donated $100 to one of the nation's oldest and largest Muslim organizations, which works to further understanding of Muslim people, culture and religion in America. I gave to its inter-faith programs, which reach out to those of other faiths to better relations. I did so because I want to support greater understanding between Muslim-Americans and other Americans who may be bashing misunderstood stereotypes rather than getting to know real people. Maybe it's not the perfect thing to do. I want to do something to help.
I'm speaking out, especially after the hate messages last night, because silence in the face of hate is never right. It lets fear-mongering win. We can't control the conversation, but we can add voices of reason and civility to it.