How to Communicate in the Age of Rage

Remember those old cartoons in which an embattled someone would hesitantly raise an old tin can—or even a white flag!—on a stick over the top of a wall or bunker, and it would immediately be shot to bits? That’s pretty much what we’re seeing on the internet these days. Well-meaning people try to make an opposing point in a discussion, or simply offer a bit of unaligned information, and they’re set upon by a pack of social media jackals, angry that anyone dare question their worldview.

After a few such bruisings, I would imagine that many people simply opt out, retreating to the relative safety of their personal Facebook and Instagram pages and avoiding sites that aren’t simpatico with their own views. It’s turtle time for a lot of folks.

That’s not an option for people in the communications industries. We have no choice but to be out there, fully exposed, making our arguments, defending our clients’ businesses, and attempting to engage with people—all the while doing our best to deflect the vitriol and venom raining down upon us.

Personally, I am hopeful that we have already reached peak rage and that people soon will go back to acting like the human beings they are in real life when they’re tapping on a keyboard. Hey, a gal can dream. Until that time, communications pros and companies need to adopt strategies that will allow them to get their messages across without disturbing any vipers nests.

Here are a few of mine:

Do You

If you say it, you need to mean it—and you need to be damned sure there’s no digital trail that will prove you a fraud. I see way too many companies loudly proclaiming their allegiance to a popular cause—gay rights, gender equality, sustainability, or something else—in the seeming belief that their bad behaviors in that area will remain concealed. Yeah, no…that’s not going to happen. If you’ve said or done something counter to the values you’re now proclaiming—even if it was years ago—you’re going to hear about it. So, you have two options: Most important, don’t pretend to be something you’re not. And if the old you is not reflective of the new you, explain that. To the extent possible, put your own spotlight on prior misbehaviors or outdated views and walk people through your process of change.

Step Out

One of the biggest dilemmas my current employer, PMI, has faced is whether to avoid confrontation by staying in the shadows or to step into the spotlight. I totally get where the shadow supporters are coming from. It’s risky to step into the light, for sure—especially when that “light” is being emitted by billowing flames of rage—but you can’t achieve a vision in isolation. In my own work at PMI, it would be impossible to achieve our goal of a smoke-free world without the active cooperation of others—and that requires actual conversations, especially the tough ones. Hiding on the sidelines isn’t an option.

Brace Yourself

I often wonder how the parents of young activists Greta Thunberg and Emma Gonzalez can stand seeing their children relentlessly attacked—especially by people multiple times their age. I hope they’re even half as tough as the young women they raised.

I thought of Greta and Emma recently when an interviewer asked me whether it was my job to serve as a “heat shield” for PMI, protecting the company by taking most of the blasts myself. That’s not how I see my job—although I have certainly taken more than my fair share of hits. I do think, though, that every company, and especially those in controversial industries, needs to be prepared for blows from any direction. This is especially the case in the age of “deepfake” technology, when people can fabricate audio and video to make anything seem true. Imagine the absolute worst things people could say about you and figure out ahead of time how best to respond.

Align Your Messengers

We’re living in a P2P (person-to-person) marketing world, where humans serve as the ultimate billboards and message conductors. In my previous work in PR, I often counseled clients about the benefits of unleashing their employee evangelists—encouraging them to blog, respond to queries online or simply take part in the conversation. In more controversial industries—especially ones that are as tightly regulated as mine—it’s not as easy as that. We need to be a lot more careful about who represents the company and how. But I do think that everyone up and down the chain of command needs to be kept apprised of the company’s goals, progress, and challenges, even if they’re not authorized to speak on behalf of the brand.

Burst Your Bubble

There was a funny exchange on Twitter a while back between two U.S. senators. Ted Cruz of Texas lamented the fact that Twitter’s algorithms were recommending he follow a bunch of political leaders on the other side of the aisle, including Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. Murphy chided Cruz for wanting to stay within his protective internet bubble. He encouraged Cruz to follow him, with a promise that his feed was pretty much “20% gun control, 80% funny cat videos.” Pretty sure Cruz didn’t take him up on the offer.

Corporate communicators need to step out of our bubbles, as well. There’s not a whole lot of payoff when preaching to the choir. Instead, it’s important to have a presence in less comfortable forums, places where people are going to challenge you and maybe even excoriate you. It won’t always be pretty, but it’s the best way to sway minds.

Listen More Than You Speak

“If your mouth is open, you’re not learning.” I don’t know where I first heard that quote, but it’s one that took a long time to sink in for me. Thoughts come to me pretty fast and furiously (friends still tease me for having been dubbed a “100-ideas-a-minute bunny” by one commentator years ago), and it can be difficult to suppress the flow. I’ve gotten a lot better, though, at taking in and mulling over what other people are saying before contributing my two (or 222) cents.

Listening has always been essential in communications, but never more so than in the Age of Rage. Some people are ranting and raving simply to bully or provoke, but many others are doing it because they are genuinely aggrieved. They’re angry about XYZ, and they want people to recognize that. Yell back, and they won’t hear a word you say. Sit back, consider what they’ve said, and then come back with a polite, thoughtful response, and you may be surprised by how quickly a rage fest can turn into an actual conversation.

Another advantage of listening is that you might actually learn something—especially when you’re willing to admit what you don’t know. It made a real impression on me a few years ago when astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was on NPR’s quiz show, “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” To the surprise of … well, pretty much the entire cosmos, the science superstar tanked the quiz. Responding to host Peter Sagal’s teasing, deGrasse Tyson said, “I look at it differently: Had I gotten all three [questions] right, I would have learned nothing. But having two wrong, I learned two things today.” A lesson that has stuck with me.

Take a Beat

At the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, Weber Shandwick and the Holmes Report hosted a panel discussion on “Reputation in the Age of Rage.” During it, Weber Shandwick chairman Jack Leslie made the point that the communications industry is both the cause and consequence of the blisteringly fast pace of online communications and the tendency of so many to sacrifice accuracy for speed. It’s tempting to respond instantaneously to any development—especially a negative one—regarding your brand, but it’s essential to remember that people will have all the time in the world to pick apart your response.

There is no denying that internet time is on hyperspeed—and speeding up by the microsecond. Scientists in Denmark found, for instance, that whereas a trending Twitter hashtag in 2013 remained in the top 50 for an average of 17.5 hours, by 2016 that was down to 11.9 hours. Obviously, that puts a lot of pressure on communicators to respond quickly, before attentions have shifted elsewhere. Keep in mind, though, that what you say can’t be retracted. Better a delayed response than a botched one.

Go Deep

As parents of toddlers everywhere find themselves saying: “Use your words.” In a world of texts, GIFs and emojis, below-the-surface conversations stand out.

Get the Words Right

And speaking of words, leave the corporate speak behind. Use simple words to convey simple concepts—especially when talking to an international audience whose members may not have a complete grasp of your language. And take the time to figure out which words have staying power. These are the ones that are memorable and allow people to immediately grasp the essential meaning. I learned early in my career that the term “metrosexual” turned a whole lot more heads than when I used to talk more generally about men embracing their feminine sides. Fast forward a couple of decades, and I’ve found that #unsmoke and #smokefreefuture get PMI’s point across a lot better than talking about ridding the world of “combustible cigarettes.”

Harness the Rage

There’s not a whole lot we can do to temper the Age of Rage other than respond to it with civility and calm. We can, however, take advantage of that rage and turn it into a source of energy for our brands. Nike’s powerful support of Colin Kaepernick is an obvious example. There are plenty of things that enrage people today, including environmental threats and the loss of civility. Figure out which cause is most intrinsic to the values of your brand and help people turn their rage into positive results.

Play the Long Game

Communicating in the Age of Rage is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t insist on changing someone’s mind. Just start the conversation. And take no for an answer. Now may not be the right time for a particular individual or organization to converse with you. Let them know how to reach you. And be prepared for when they do.