In public relations, we often discuss how our brand and marketing campaigns respond to online trolls and negative feedback.
Truthfully we sometimes do this to the point of over analyzing and over thinking the reaction to a single negative online comment.
Since in this day and age 4 negative tweets create a “backlash” story that overworked news outlets can come up with in a lunch break, all brands are conscious of having a strategy to deal with feedback online.
People in PR and marketing often quote the Streisand effect in their dealings.
The notion that responding to criticism will bring more attention to something and more disapprobation than just ignoring the comments is a legitimate PR strategy of course.
The singular over-reaction to a bad Yelp review for instance is a news cycle staple, the purest of Streisand effects.
It has made brands gun shy and conservative in their dealings, hoping that online criticism and even trolling will pass in time.
But there are times your brand does need to defend itself, when the criticism seems relentless, unfounded and unfair, how do you approach your response?
What values do you wish to promote in your brand when that online criticism goes into the mainstream and is a big part of your story?
One of the big discussion points in AFLW right now involves how the league and the players should respond to trolling and criticism.
AFLW has never simply been allowed to be a sport, and has never truly been allowed to exist as a sport.
It was Mark Robinson (of all people) who commented when Mo Hope was struggling that he (as a male commentator) should be able to point out Hope was having a poor season as he would for any sportsperson.
In an ideal world, we could have that conversation.
However Robinson’s own paper published a page of letters with all levels of the subtle commentary you can imagine from a Murdoch paper following the Collingwood vs Carlton game in Season 2.
One bad game wasn’t just taken as a disappointing game, but a referendum on the whole leagues existence.
After that it was suddenly open season on womens football.
It is important to make that distinction early because it defines the heart of why “shut up and play” isn’t a valid PR strategy at this moment.
The notion that sometimes crops up in these debates is “well they have to cop it like other sportspeople”, but the basis of the trolling and commentary never comes from a place of sporting debate.
The criticisms aren’t on sporting ability, they are on the very existence of the league, and since opening day in season 2, it hasn’t let up.
On a daily basis, AFLW players and fans face a daily barrage of criticism and commentary from (mostly) male social media users.
The range of criticism covers a spectrum that comments on poor skills and low scoring through to outright viciousness about the players looks, sexuality and the very right to play the game itself.
Over this week. Channel 7 got on the front foot, making a short 1 minute video in which AFLW players responded to their haters, and posted it online.
Quickly, this clip was deleted by the insistence of AFLHQ, citing reasons that it was unauthorised and “didn’t fit their message of inclusivity”.
Of course, we are not naive enough to know Channel 7s motivations weren’t exactly altruistic – they wanted to create a piece of provocative viral marketing for their coverage.
The merits of the video itself are different to discussing the message of course, which is the point of this post today, since it stands as the only recorded coordinated response to this online hatred that has been created to date.
From a marketing point of view, inclusivity is an interesting word to use in this situation, since a basic brand analysis of AFLW shows their idea of inclusivity doesn’t cut both ways.
The mythology is that if the girls just “shut up and play”, “don’t give this criticism oxygen”, put their head down and kick more goals this criticism will go away.
This is strategically unproven given the 3 years of the leagues existence provides evidence to the contrary.
Draw a large crowd? Get trolled for entry being free.
Kick more goals? Get trolled for how easy it is for “chicks to kick goals”.
It’s hard to think what the league can do now to be “inclusive” to those who disparage it, and to be honest, it’s getting to the point where you could even ask why it has or wants to try.
The league needs to now find strategies to engage the existing community that loves and cares for it, rather than chasing those who turn their backs no matter what happens.
A basic brand analysis shows AFLW is continually chasing the approval of this mythical “mainstream” rather than ensuring its own growth year on year with young female fans.
At a time where summer sport is becoming more disparate in the ratings, there is a place for AFLW and it can be a confident participant in the sporting landscape.
And part of that is to be confident enough to empower its clubs and players to take on trolling head on – ignoring the posts hasn’t worked.
To be clear, a brand management strategy doesn’t need to have someone sitting responding to every single negative tweet from someone with 6 followers, but it is getting incumbent on clubs to have their own players backs.
Inclusivity is a two-way street, it can’t just be on the players to “push through” as good corporate citizens, that isn’t fair at all.
We stated last year post the memo how dis-spiriting it was that a league that claimed empowerment and that it was the girl’s home essentially told the girls to make it look prettier and more attractive based on male feedback.
And watching the leagues response to the issue of trolling, here we find ourselves again.
Already this year, Kane Cornes, Dwayne Russell, Richard Hinds and (even more dis-spiritingly) Abbey Holmes and Lauren Wood (on the ever troublesome Womens Footy show) have come up with variants of the “shut up and smile” theory.
In the co-authorised book about her father Mick Malthouse, Christi Malthouse cites an early 2000s example of Eddie McGuire telling her to go into work after a barrage of criticism with a big smile and her finest lippy as if nothing had happened.
Of course, we can think that advice (and Malthouse being grateful for it) is indicative of a dated mindset, but it is still being promoted as a point of view on a Channel 9 womens football show.
The trouble with this theory from an AFLW brand point of view, given the relentless trolling, is it puts the onus on the burdened (the players and fans) to do something about the trolls.
This is seen as an option, rather than putting the onus on the unburdened who can post any comments they want with impunity.
From a PR perspective, it is still possible for even the most conservative brands to pick strategic battles in terms of what their brand means and is meant to represent.
The best hope to deal with trolling officially has probably sailed, since officially the clubs, news outlets and HQ have allowed the situation to fester.
And yes, ignoring the trolls was an option, but AFLW as a brand is so intertwined with “footy”, and all the connotations and values that come with it.
All the ex male players, all the ill-informed commentary….
Dwayne Russell’s suggestion – to highlight the highlights and accentuate the great parts of AFLW?
Wonderful in theory, but fans online especially aren’t allowed their own space TO enjoy those highlights and enjoy the league as it is and grows?
And yes, that includes the mainstream media, who fixate on low scores and demand changes and shout over those who enjoy things about the league like Bec Goddard talking about the Corrs and the Fridge army that non fans wouldn’t understand.
If no one is officially going to challenge Peter Jess saying concussions are going to create an “intergenerational nightmare in which women forget to pick up their children from school” and that makes the paper, how much can the anonymous trolls get away with?
To tie back to the first paragraph, yes, ignoring the trolls is an option, but from a PR point of view, ignoring trolls is still a strategic brand decision that needs planning.
It’s fine for Wood to suggest the game should “talk to those we love”, but that’s not strategic in terms of brand reputation for AFLW anymore.
The reputation management of AFLW has been so poor day to day, that they now need a strategy better than “stay positive and play footy girls!”
It’s important to define that “ignoring the trolls” in this day and age does need to chosen as a strategy, since it still needs a point of counter activity, and AFLHQ haven’t done that, rendering it a moot option.
“Talk to those we love” – we’re trying, but we’re being interrupted 2, 3 times over by negative comments.
To now suggest three seasons in that the players have to carry some sort of burden for the situation is a disgraceful place to put yourself from a PR point of view.
To put the onus back on the players to “play better” or “be nicer on social media” or “come on girls, give us something to support!” is not working anymore.
It shows a lack of leadership, a lack of strategy and a lack of foresight.
Every time you’re looking the other way
We will finish with a specific example to illuminate the points above and why it’s becoming impossible for AFLW participants to just “talk to those we love”.
For those engaged in the AFLW news cycle, there are so many specific examples of horrible mean-spirited trolling, mis-represented quotes and half-truths masking as columns (hello Kane Cornes again).
This very week Steph Chiocci was misquoted in a Super Footy article about low scoring, sparking the cycle of commentary we’ve been talking about.
We do want to hone in on something in particular to illuminate the points above.
Among countless examples we could pick from, two significant ones involve Sarah Perkins of the Adelaide Crows AFLW team.
Last year, Perkins signed on to play for Hawthorns VFLW team, and as is standard, Hawthorn posted a “Welcome to Hawthorn” post on their Facebook page.
The comments that followed were vicious, and unrelenting, criticising Perkins look, play and women in general – and that was from Hawthorn fans commenting on their own player.
Significantly, these comments weren’t challenged by anyone from Hawthorn – none of their high-profile ex players, none of their officials, none of their current players, and none of their higher profile supporters.
Just this past weekend, Perkins knocked over her team-mate Anne Hatchard in a chest bump goal celebration, and Fox Footy reposted the clip out of context as “a goal celebration gone wrong” with the insinuation Hatchard had been injured.
The result of such mean-spirited click bait from Fox – more trolling, even more widespread this time, and again, neither Fox Footy, the league or the Crows have commented on it.
Obviously, it’s not stating anything other than the obvious that expecting a Murdochian related publication to exercise restraint or taste when there are clicks to be had is impossible, and they have allowed the post and its festering comments to exist with no moderation.
On a very basic level, allowing such online viciousness to exist can have a significant impact on a participants mental health.
The Players Tribune/Players voice websites in the USA and Australia consistently feature articles on a players mental health suffering under the weight of relentless social media pressure.
And yet Superfooty and Fox Footy and club websites and social media feeds let these kind of AFLW comments pass without moderation or concern, because posting a negative story about womens football is now a way to get clicks.
Fox Footy being deliberately mean-spirited and vicious about a funny goal celebration simply can’t go unchallenged, and yet it illustrates the battles that are faced against the trolls every single day, and who enables them.
It shouldn’t be left to Perkins to fight her own battles on social media on this, it should be part of the daily inclusivity that the AFLHQ so demands that basic respect be given.
It also shouldn’t be on the players and teams to be put in the position where every week they live on trial, that one low scoring game is enough to put the future of the league in question.
When it’s at the stage where Fox Footy can so openly post something to get the trolls in, “shut up and smile” simply isn’t an option anymore…