How Tor failed Social Media 101

There are some companies that appear to be native to the web, not just on the web but of the web. Often these companies were early adopters, building websites whilst others called the web a ‘fad’, starting blogs before most people knew what they were, and using social media in a way that makes them appear to have a sound and thorough understanding of the medium. Tor is one such company, but sadly, it has recently become clear that Tor does not actually understand social media and, in particular, has not developed or adhered to a crisis communications policy. 

The short story is that some month ago, two overlapping groups of people calling themselves the Sad Puppies and the Rabid Puppies campaigned to game the Hugo Awards, in which both nominations and awards are via a popular vote. Whatever one thinks of the people in and supporters of these groups, it is fair to say that they are engaging in what one might call grievance politics. Certainly there’s also an awful lot of identity politics involved, so temperatures on all sides are running high. If your’e not familiar with the backstory, a quick google will provide you with a wide variety of opinions on the Puppies, their politics and their activities.

What I am specifically concerned about, and why I’m disappointed in Tor, is their reaction to a complaint from one of the Puppies about a comment made by a Tor employee, Irene Gallo, on her personal Facebook page. Rather than taking a considered approach, Tor threw their employee under a bus, and appear to have broken every rule in the crisis comms rulebook. It’s sad to see that a company that in many other respects really gets the web, fails to understand how to manage the fallout from an online furore. 

Note: I have no insider knowledge of what went down at Tor, I only have their public statement to go on, but that in itself tells me a lot about what probably did and didn’t happen. 

1. Consider the situation 

The first mistake Tor appear to have made is that they did not fully understand and consider the situation. There are several aspects to this situation that raise red flags and call for especially careful handling of the response: 

Any one of those issues would flag a complaint as requiring careful thought, but all of them together add up to a warning to tread incredibly carefully indeed. I don’t think Tor did that. The wording of Tom Doherty’s blog post in response to the complaint is clumsy and ill-considered, and shows no signs of having been properly thought through. 

2. Take enough time, but not too much or too little

When the shit hits the social media fan, it is important to respond in a timely manner, but it’s even more important to avoid a kneejerk reaction. If an issue needs further inquiry before a full response is issued, then it’s acceptable to publicly acknowledge the complaint and say that it’s being looked into.

It may even be that no response is required – not every complaint is deserving of employer intervention. If an employee has a disagreement with a member of the public on her own Facebook page, it is possible that her apology on said Facebook page is sufficient, and that her employer need not step in at all. One can debate whether that was the case here or not, but it is an option that should have been considered, along with all others.  

Doherty’s response reads very much like a kneejerk reaction. it is, to all intents and purposes, a public disciplining of Gallo, which is entirely inappropriate no matter what Gallo did. If you address a complaint, you do not use it as an opportunity to shame your staff. Doherty should have taken more time to think about exactly what was going on and how his post would be read by the broader Tor community. 

3. Remember there are three sides to every argument

Any public response to a public complaint is made more complex by the fact that there are three parties involved: You, them, and the audience. In his rush to appease Gallo’s critics, Doherty appears to have forgotten that he might also anger people who agree or sympathise with Gallo, or who do not believe that the complaint against her has merit, or who, after reading his post, believe that the complaint has merit but that his response was inappropriate, etc. 

In chastising Gallo online, Doherty has alienated a lot of people, and that in and of itself is a massive failure for Tor that Doherty himself should be disciplined for. You simply do not rush in with a response that inflames the situation, especially when it’s obvious from the beginning that tempers are running high and offence is being easily taken. Indeed, the taking of offence is a key weapon in grievance politics, and Doherty should have both realised there was a major risk that his response as written might make the situation worse rather than better. 

4. Talk to your employee, work with them on both your response and theirs

Whether or not you agree with Gallo’s initial comment, it is clear that there was insufficient conversation between Gallo, Doherty and others at Tor about how best to deal with the situation. Gallo’s apology has been deemed a ‘fauxpology’ by some, and I can see how they would reach that conclusion. The key line is “I apologize to anyone hurt by my comments”, which might have been more appropriate worded as “I apologise for saying something offensive”. If you’re going to apologise, swallow your pride and do it properly and graciously, even if you feel you shouldn’t have to, and be very careful to avoid any wording which can be interpreted as shifting the blame on to those offended.

But equally, Doherty, does not appear to have discussed his response with either Gallo or anyone else who might have pointed out that it reads very poorly. When you respond to a complaint, you do not need to defend the complainant, you simply need to address the substance of the complaint, where it is valid, and explain if necessary any parts of the complaint you have concluded are not valid. Doherty did not do that. 

So what should Tor have done? 

There are two things that Tor should have done, and that all companies should do right now, if they haven’t already: 

1. Draft an employee social media policy

Work with their staff to draw up a social media policy, governing appropriate behaviour online. This policy should not have the effect of chilling speech, so it absolutely has to respect the fact that employees need to have their private spaces online. But it should discuss how to protect those spaces, and how to think about what can be said publicly and how to think through the potential fall-out of controversial statements.

A social media policy should also tie in to standard disciplinary procedures, so that staff are clear on what would constitute a serious transgression that would invoke that procedure, and how it will play out. Social media is not special or different, so should always follow standard HR procedures. Staff should never, ever, be chastised in public, and that this happened is a failure of senior Tor management that needs to be addressed.

2. Draft a crisis communications policy and procedure

When something goes awry, it’s essential that people across the company know what to do, who to talk to, and how to minimise the impact. Doherty has not done a single thing that I would recommend a company do, and instead of soothing ruffled feathers, he has inflamed the situation and alienated core customers. 

A crisis comms policy should again be drafted with staff, discuss the kinds of issues that can crop up, particularly the different between external crises, where an event outside of the company’s control causes a problem, and internal crises such as this one, where staff members says something without giving it enough thought.

There should be a chain of command, so that everyone knows how to escalate a problem, and there should always be two pairs of eyes on the response, particularly in small businesses where it’s easy to feel personally attacked and thus to overreact when things go wrong. There should be guidelines on how to properly respond, what to say, what not to say, how to formulate a reply that addresses the facts and not the emotion of a complaint, and when not to respond at all. 

I find it unlikely that Tor has such a procedure, given what’s just happened, and that again is a failure of senior management that they need to address, urgently. 

Note about comments: I am travelling at the moment, and because all comments are moderated there may be a delay in approval of your comment, should you choose to leave one. Abuse, rudeness or any incivility will simply result in the comment being deleted. Repeat offenders will be banned. I am not interested in a discussion of the Puppies or their politics, so those comments will not be published, along with any other off-topic comments. For the sake of clarity, on-topic comments are those about crisis comms and social media. 

13 thoughts on “How Tor failed Social Media 101

  1. Highly interesting post. One thought — Tor Books is owned by Macmillan and I have seen people posting comments quoting what is represented to be Macmillan’s social media policy. Given the corporate hierarchy, would Tor Books be allowed to create its own?

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for your comment and apologies for it taking a while to approve – I have been giving a talk in Newcastle!

      It’s a very difficult question to answer without knowing much about the management relationships between Tor and Macmillan. Sometimes subsidiaries essentially run their own social media policies, sometimes they must adhere to those set out by the parent company. But one has to be very careful when implementing a policy that’s been written by someone else, as there needs to be widespread discussion so that staff feel some ownership of the policy and thus responsibility for upholding it. Just imposing a policy around issues like social media can really backfire if people feel it is unfair in some way.

      But it’s not just the social media policy that’s an issue, it’s also the disciplinary policy — is humiliating your staff in a blog post a standard part of the Tor/Macmillan disciplinary process? I would guess not.

  2. Management #ProTip (one that we learned in the Army, for crying out loud!): Praise in public. Criticize or punish in private.

    As for what I think really is going on, despite how much I like Tor and how many Tor volumes I own, see my blog (link below, I hope), the recent entry “Double Standards: Tor Books”. I detect a pattern. Can you?

  3. It was extremely unwise for Ms. Gallo to make her statement in a thread -she- started promoting a book -her- company was promoting. Absent that fact all you say is correct. Absent that fact.

  4. Given that the Puppies were posting contact information for Macmillan for their followers to complain to, my suspicion is that Tom Doherty didn’t have a whole lot of choice in how he handled the matter. When your bosses say, “Apologetic public statement. NOW,” you tend not to try to prevaricate. (Though as I’ve said elsewhere, normally when Tor.com posts anything even remotely likely to be controversial, they disable comments. The fact that they didn’t here suggests the possibility of wanting to show the corporate bosses how wrong they were to force him to make that statement.

    Though I could be reading too much into it.

  5. Jody, no, not absent that fact. The details of what Gallo said do not excuse the appalling handling of this by Tor. Whether or not one agrees with her, there is never any reason to publicly shame an employee, nor to defend the complainant in an apology.

    Robotech_Master, There’s always a choice in how you word things, and how long you take to do so. There is literally no excuse for the way that that blog post was written. If an apology was deemed essential, it should have been brief and stuck to the basics. It should not have either thrown Gallo under a bus nor defended the complainant.

  6. Please note: There are a couple of comments in moderation that are just opinions about the Puppies and attacks on my view of the Puppies. As I said, I’m not interested in having that discussion, so they won’t be published. If people want to discuss crisis comms, social media, or other similar issues, then I’m interested to hear what you have to say. I am not interested in a debate about Puppy politics, or whether or not I am vile.

  7. “Doherty’s response reads very much like a kneejerk reaction. it is, to all intents and purposes, a public disciplining of Gallo”

    Really? It read to me like a standard corporate disclaimer to dissassociate themselves from an employee who is not speaking for them. For example the recent disclaimer of Biochemist Sir Tim Hunt (who made a sexist joke) by The Royal Society distanced themselves from his comments and said they did not reflect it’s views (https://royalsociety.org/news/2015/06/tim-hunt-comments/)

  8. The RS didn’t publicly chastise Hunt, nor did they get into a big explanation of why his critics were right, so it’s actually very unlike Tor’s response. The RS’s was very neutral in tone, again, unlike Tor’s, so I’m afraid whilst the comparison is interesting, it’s not flattering to Tor.

  9. What was the public chastisment in Tor’s disclaimer of Gallo?

    Inasmuch as anything says anything the RS basically said: We need women and diversity to be our best and many talented individuals are not fulfilling their potential due to comments like his, which were his alone and do not reflect our views.

    Tor basically said: We are open to a diverse selection of readers, the Puppies aren’t only about supporting white guys, and Gallo’s comments are hers alone and do not reflect our views, we have asked our employees to make it clear when they are speaking as individuals*

    They seem about the same level of chastisement to me (in the way I’ve summarised them at least). I’m not saying you’re wrong, but I don’t see how one is an unnaceptable berating and the other is a neutral disclaimer.

    The ‘big explanation’ of why his critics were right was “we need women and diversity, talented individuals are not continuing due to gender bias [implication – which he was reinforcing]” – it wasn’t as long as the disclaimer that Puppies aren’t neo nazi white fascists, but in effect it’s saying similar things – [In our corporate opinion] Gallo described the puppies unfairly/[in our corporate opinion] Hunt contributed to a hostile environment that limits the talented potential we need for the future.

    I’d be interested to see where you differ on this comparison.

    *Which seems reasonable as she posted her comment as part of her promotion of a Tor book, which could look official.

    1. Short response, as I’m out all day today and tomorrow, most of Sunday, all day Monday, most of Tuesday and part of Wednesday!

      In short, though, Tor should not have waded into the discussion of who/what the Puppies are. That is a part of the chastisement (effectively saying “No, Gallo, you’re wrong and we’re right”), but it’s also taking sides and that’s bad form when it comes to official apologies or discussions of apology. It goes beyond “We do not take political opinion into account when deciding who to publish and we publish a diverse list of writers” and wades right into “And furthermore, we support the people who’ve complained.” If you want your staff to remain neutral, you too have to remain neutral.

      The remainder of the chastisement comes in the last paragraph. It’s of the “We have told her off” nature, which again, is a way to belittle and humiliate her.

      The thing is, when politics are involved, particularly grievance and identity politics, tempers run high. The only way to properly deal with this is to think very, very carefully about what you’re saying. If you want to say that you are politically neutral, then actually be neutral, don’t pretend to be neutral whilst supporting the person who’s complained about what your staff member said.

  10. Neither Gallo’s apology nor Doherty’s post reads as if it were prepared, edited or otherwise examined by lawyers before being posted. That would have been a really good idea in this case, I think. And if not that, at least a human resources professional should have seen both and offered suggestions for possible editing of both statements. I know it’s horrible to think that lawyers have to have their fingers in everything, but in a case like this, where emotions are running so high, it sure would have helped.

Comments are closed.