Strategies & Tactics

How a Case of Mistaken Identity Made My Life an Online Nightmare

October 2, 2018

[alex maxim]
[alex maxim]

“How Mistaken Identity Turned My Life Into an Online Nightmare” is a featured PD session at the PRSA International Conference in Austin, Texas, on Oct. 7-9. Check the program or app for details.


Jan. 24, 2017, started off just like any other first day of a new semester. I got up at 5 a.m., drank two cups of coffee, watched the local news and then watched the first hour of the “Today” show. I packed my lunch, reviewed my calendar, triple-checked I had my lesson plans and was out the door.

I couldn’t have predicted my life would be turned upside-down before dinner.

The first class I was teaching was “Critical Business Skills for Corporate Communication.” An hour before, I was in my office reviewing notes when I noticed some strange Twitter notifications. I would be remiss at this point in the story to not mention I’m on Twitter all the time. I value it and encourage my students to use the platform as well. Notifications of follows, comments and retweets come in regularly, but these were different. Three people I didn’t know said I should be fired and didn’t belong in America. Confused, I let it go.

A half hour later, the three turned into many more tweets of the same tone. 

Honestly, I didn’t have time to think about it. I had students waiting. From the time I left my desk to the time I reached the classroom door, the tweets became overwhelming. So I did what any good communications pro would do: I googled my name.

Much to my surprise, my typical results were replaced by news of a leaked Facebook post from Denver-based Secret Service agent Kerry O’Grady, detailing how she wouldn’t take a bullet for newly sworn-in President Donald Trump.

Surprise quickly turned to horror when I realized the agent had deleted her social profiles. My full name, spelled exactly the same way as hers, isn’t common. Thus, when you googled “Kerry O’Grady,” the news stories about her popped up alongside my public social profiles. When you put two and two together — yikes.

Making a plan

Guess what’s not helpful when you realize an avalanche is coming: needing to be away from your phone for 2.5 hours while you teach a class. I don’t, however, have a poker face; my students knew something was up as soon as I entered the room. So I practiced what I preached: I was transparent and kicked off the day discussing the situation, what I was going to do next and the rationale behind the plan of action. I was determined to make everyone in my profession proud, especially my students.

As soon as I dismissed class for the day, I was greeted by hundreds of additional tweets as well as Facebook direct messages. The first thing I did was put up a public post on Facebook, detailing what happened, inclusive of the hashtag #notsecretservicekerry. I then pinned a tweet saying I was not the Secret Service agent (with the same hashtag). Next, I started tweeting/contacting media outlets running the story, so they could (hopefully) add my pinned tweet and Facebook post to follow-ups. My media friends from all over the country started posting about it as well, reiterating I was the wrong person (forever #thankful). The next part of my plan wasn’t so seamless. I also knew it was going to be controversial, painstaking and emotionally draining.

I was going to answer every single tweet and Facebook message.

Managing the trolls

Understanding that this goes against everything you’ve heard about “not feeding the trolls,” hear me out.

I agree that “feeding the trolls” — giving accounts attacking you an invitation to interact — isn’t always a great idea. But as someone who teaches reputation management, I do believe there’s a time and place for everything — including “feeding the trolls.”

If your reputation is at stake through the dissemination of wrong information, then you need to act. It’s the only way people will understand there is a human behind the handle/name/email address they are sending the rumors, lies, anger or hate to.

If your reputation is not in danger and the person is simply reacting to something you’ve written or said, and it’s just their opinion, then there is no need to engage. Social media is a way for people to broadcast their feelings these days, and unfortunately, this isn’t stopping anytime soon. (If you feel threatened in any way, however, it’s important you contact customer service or the police, or report to the FBI, depending on the severity.)

And so, with my own reputation on the line, I stayed up all night answering every tweet and Facebook message, letting each offender know that they not only had the wrong person, but they should be careful using social media in the future. It worked, resulting in this story becoming international news within 24 hours. Here’s how I stayed sane while putting my life back together:

  • If it’s untrue, educate: The world is full of #fakenews. As communications professionals — especially if we are the subject of the news — our job is to educate and correct. We do this by sticking to facts and figures, as well as by using a declarative tone when responding. We also need to keep answers short and to the point, avoiding further conversation around the untruth. This is a good opportunity, however, to invite the individual to contact you separately if he or she would like to learn more about the information that clearly debunks the myth.
  • If it’s hurtful, detach: This one is the toughest to accomplish. Humans are, by nature, emotional beings. We are affected by the words and actions of others. We need to constantly remember to not take things personally. That said, removing yourself from the experience and being able to look at it through the lens of only controlling what you can control — and not absorbing the other person’s feelings — is key.
  • If it’s infuriating, breathe: During stressful situations, we forget breathing is one of the most calming things we can do for ourselves. Getting mad is easy; staying calm takes poise and practice. Embody the latter. People respond better to directness than they do to anger. Gather your thoughts, articulate and walk away the bigger, better person.
Kerry O'Grady

Kerry O’Grady is a full-time clinical assistant professor of public relations at the NYU School of Professional Studies — Division of Programs in Business. Past positions include roles at Women’s Health, Parents and American Baby magazines. Connect with her on Twitter @OGradyKL.
 

Comments

Meg Burton says:

Wow! It is so ironic that this would happen to someone who teaches about reputation management. Kudos to you for your expert handling of the situation.

Oct. 5, 2018

Karen Terrill says:

Well done! And so generous! You handled the situation beautifully. And you summarized it with a step-by-step guide that any communicator can implement. With your permission, I would like to distribute this post during my training. Thank you Kelly.

Oct. 20, 2018

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