Is brand trolling by customers a PR opportunity?

In February this year, as an early summer crept into Delhi, I decided to buy some cotton T-shirts from fair trade clothing company ‘No Nasties’. It was the first time for me buying clothes from an online firm. The order was very late and I took to their Facebook page for some venting.

There was an immediate response from the company’s founder. I also received a detailed email explaining the reason for the delay with the offer of a 20% discount on future purchases.

Any delay in response and I would have certainly continued to make a bigger issue out of this. The challenge for brands is that customers today expect real time responses. Fail to do that or do that badly and you can easily have a massive PR crisis on your hands.

The angry Indian customer

Melissa Arulappan, senior director, corporate communications, with biopharma services firm, Quintiles says that when it comes to brand trolling, “It’s the disgruntled consumer whose voice I see increasing disproportionately.”

Arulappan points out that this situation has also come around because of poor customer response systems, “The consumer redressal system most companies and brands have (or rather don’t) today almost forces consumers into becoming online trolls. It’s their public confessional and consumers often take their grievance online just so that they will get a listening year and response. Of course not every consumer who complains is a troll and one needs to make that distinction.”

Apurva, founder, ‘No Nasties’ has a clear bit of advise for handling trolls, “Don't feed the trolls, and you'll be fine. ​ Most such issues and outrages from the customer are forwarded directly to me and I try to de-escalate the situation and see how best to turn it around. Our goal is to build a community, and that needs people willing to join you - no point locking horns then with anyone.”

Brand trolling as a PR opportunity

Though traditionally, customer related brand trolling is handled first by customer care and legal; PR professionals feel brand trolling is also a PR opportunity. Nihal Shaikh, communications specialist and former PR lead at says that, “Increasingly, customer care is becoming more important for PR professionals. While the actual customer complaint can be taken care by the customer care department, PR support can help turn the customer into a brand advocate.”

Nihal gives the example of British Airways and the way they handled the lost baggage complaint of cricket legend, Sachin Tendulkar:

All hell broke loose of course at British Airways not knowing they were dealing with a global and highly visible sports star. Nihal says proper PR could have prevented this situation.

Brand trolling is business as usual!

Deepa Thomas, general manager, group communications, Mahindra and Mahindra, says PR professionals need to accept that brand trolling is a fact of life. She says, “Prepare for it by cultivating and encouraging loyal fans to speak up for the brand. Peers are more trusted than brands and seen as more credible during crises.”

Apurva’s experience is that, “The community behind a brand now usually steps in and protects what they support, and it's embarrassing for the troller who was intending to target and engage just the brand from being told off by his online peers.”

Adds Deepa, “Depending on your brand voice, do consider responding to the comment in a witty but non offensive way with your message. It is important to be authentic to your brand persona and voice.”

Apurva agrees saying, “Being a purpose-driven brand, we (No Nasties) stick to our core values anytime we have to engage with such behavior online. Be genuine, be transparent, be calm. When we get trolled, we think of it as another opportunity for us to share our values.

Deepa also recommends being consistent in how you handle trolling. She feels that brands must have a written policy for their community and also for the internal team -in case multiple people handle the same social media account.

When brand trolling is great marketing

Brand trolling is not always negative, it can be used very effectively to hijack other brands for some great PR. Volvo did this by trolling every other car commercial during the Superbowl, a feat that won the firm a Cannes Lion in 2015. What exactly did they, watch and find out:

(Disclosure. Though ‘No Nasties’ is quoted in this story, the discount offer was made before they knew I was a journalist and was offered to all customers who had delayed deliveries.)

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