How to survive your 15 minutes of shame

When it comes to coping with cyber shame, are you using the Apple or the Kanye West approach? Huge's Megan Wintersteen shared advice with SXSW attendees.

Don't follow Kanye's example if you become a target of cyber shame.

What do actor Jason Biggs, former IAC PR rep Justine Sacco, and DiGiorno Pizza have in common? Each was a target of cyber shaming — and with very different ways of coping.

While it comes in various forms, cyber shaming is when a mob of social media users attacks a person or brand online because of a perceived wrong or injustice. Sometimes it is warranted, but it always escalates quickly, and the consequences for the person or brand being shamed usually increase offline. Cyber shaming has become a widespread trend, and brands are often more susceptible to it.

Speaking at SXSW Interactive, Megan Wintersteen, lead planner at digital agency Huge, shared advice for surviving cyber shaming. According to Wintersteen, there are two strategies to avoid: the Apple way and the Kanye West approach.

Apple often says nothing in response to controversies involving its brand. This has worked out fine for the beloved brand in the past, but for most other companies and people it can do more harm than good.

In 2011, Entenmann’s came under fire for promoting its treats with the hashtag #notguilty, which was trending because of Casey Anthony’s not guilty murder verdict. In the aftermath, Entenmann’s stayed silent for a long time on social media.

Because of that tactic, the brand "lived on in shame infamy," Wintersteen explained.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jason Biggs got into hot water when he tweeted, "Anyone wanna buy my Malaysian Airlines frequent flier miles?" after one of the airline’s planes was shot down over Ukraine last summer. In true boisterous Kanye fashion, Biggs lashed out at social media users who criticized his insensitivity, calling them "a-holes." Not long after that (presumably after his publicist talked to him), he deleted his offensive tweets and issued an apology.

So what should you do if you’re the target of cyber shaming? Remember these three points, Wintersteen said:

1. Time is your enemy.

"The longer [the offending content] is out there, the more fuel there is on the fire," Wintersteen said.

Justine Sacco was on a flight for 11 hours, unaware that her name was trending on Twitter after an off-the-cuff tweet (read her full saga here). If she’d been able to respond sooner, the controversy might not have become quite so big, Wintersteen said — and she might even still have her job.

2. Apologize — even if you don’t think you’re wrong.

"Be smart enough to realize you offended some people," Wintersteen said.

Last September, DiGiorno piggybacked on the hashtag #WhyIStayed, which was trending after a video surfaced of NFL player Ray Rice hitting his fiancé. This didn’t sit well with Twitter users, because DiGiorno’s tweet — "#WhyIStayed You had pizza" — had nothing to do with raising awareness of domestic abuse.

After Twitter turned on the brand, DiGiorno deleted the tweet and reached out to users individually to apologize. The brand didn’t use a canned PR response, which helped it recover from its cyber shame, Wintersteen said.

3. Create positive or neutral content to burnish your online presence.

"Content online has a longer shelf life than content in traditional media," Wintersteen said.

That’s why, if you’ve been a victim of cyber shame, you can’t stay dormant. Put content online  and on social channels that you want people to see. Brands and people need to do a better job of monitoring and taking control of their online presence — only then is it possible to survive.

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