A common excuse for not replying to criticism is “we don’t want to fuel the fire.” This is replicated in the maxim for the online world, “don’t feed the trolls”.
As analogies go, this argument is particularly useless because controversy grows whether you feed it or not.
The challenge is to douse the fire, not inflame it. It appears that one option is to spray your critics with a dose of cold reality.
This is what a PR company in the United States used when its client, the parents of a Catholic boys’ school, were bullied by social media vigilantes.
A few seconds of video on social media appeared to show white, middle-class secondary school students disrespecting a Native American protestor in Washington.
Following what is now common practice, the upper hierarchy of the school and church immediately accepted the criticism, apologised and promised investigations.
The PR company thought differently. It chose to defend the boys’ reputations, not go along with trashing it.
A boy at the centre of the short video issued a personal explanation of the encounter. It was supported by hours of video posted online showing the period before and after the faceoff.
It revealed that a fringe group called the Black Hebrew Israelites subjected the schoolboys to an hour-long racist diatribe. It revealed that the boys were advanced on by the Native American protestor.
The new context had three effects; it emboldened a flood of people to voice their support the boys, it stopped or subdued the critics, and it forced a slew of media outlets and celebrities to apologise for their intemperate and incautious reactions.
This is evidence that responding to controversy with facts can smother the flames. It won’t satisfy your most savage critics, but the general population still appears to understand that there are many sides to a story.