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How to respond to a social media attack

01 Jun, 2020 Issues and crises, Social media

Social media has become much more volatile thanks to the Tweeter-in-Chief. This is especially true politically, but it’s also true in marketing, communication, and the wider business world. People have become more polarized politically, and are quick to criticize on impulse.

What’s the best way to respond to such attacks? I’m a big fan of US linguistics expert George Lakoff, who has developed an effective formula for dealing with social media attacks. He says logic and reason have no chance of winning moral debates. Lakoff says reframing is vital.


Framing is the way we present information so others interpret it in a particular way. How something is presented (the frame) influences the choices people make. Framing is a form of agenda-setting, a thought organizer.

Lakoff’s tips for responding

  1. Make a positive case as soon as possible. Use a different frame of reference in your response (ie use another term for the point being made), and direct a stream of proactive, accurate messaging at the target audience. This undermines their frame. Repeat your message, which further emphasizes your terms and frame.
  2. Don’t use any of the attacker’s terms, images or hashtags.
  3. Don’t share their tweets or messages.

The worst thing you can do in response to an attack or even negative questions in social media or news media is to repeat the words of the attacker, or argue directly in response to the attack. The classic example in news media is the speech by President Richard Nixon on 17 November 1973 in response to accusations of covering up the infamous Watergate break-in in Washington: “…people have got to know whether their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” He is associating himself with the word “crook.” This repetition strengthens the image in the mind,  thus creating the impression he is most likely a crook. (Recently seeing the excellent movie, “The Post,” reminded me of Nixon all over again.)

With a statement like ““Clean coal isn’t really clean; in fact, so-called clean coal plants have yet to prove effective,” the repeated phrase “clean coal” underlines an impression of, well, coal being clean, whereas all coal is actually a major cause of damaging pollution in the world when burned.

Similarly, you might say “Our product didn’t cause a safety problem,” which reinforces the accusation of a safety problem in people’s minds. You should say something like “Our product fully complies with strict regulatory requirements, but we will look into this claim nevertheless.”

You can read more of Lakoff’s viewpoint in one of his posts.


Top image: Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash.

Bottom image: President Richard Nixon, 17 November 1973, on YouTube.

About Kim Harrison – author, editor and content curator

Kim Harrison, Founder and Principal of Cutting Edge PR, loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in his books available from

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