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When the Internet Attacks: Calculating the Cost of True Disruption

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What happens after taking a stand results in death threats?

In 2018, internet trolls have a lot to eat. Social networks face an uphill battle as bad actors and bots deliver tweets by the millions. But even without coordinated trolls and bot attacks, Twitter threads can become toxic when influencers take a stand that opposes a community.

Eboni K. Williams understands this too well. After a career of working hard on the radio, television, and the sports circuit to secure a prominent role at Fox News, she faced the wrath of Twitter after denouncing the President’s response to the Charlottesville, Va. protests.

What happens in your mind when your personal and professional brand is attacked? How do you recover? As a minority and political moderate at a polarizing cable network, she’s no stranger to controversy. On the final session of SMWNYC’s first day, Doug Melville, TBWA\CHIAT\DAY Worldwide’s Chief Diversity Officer, sat with Ms. Williams to discuss the true cost of disruption.

“Disruption” on the Docket

After the Charlottesville protest, killings, and government response, Williams knew what she would be asked to do. “My heart sank [watching the event unfold]. As an on-air professional, I knew it would be my responsibility to respond to that egregious action.”

She didn’t think she was capable at first, but then her producer called and asked her to discuss it on the docket.

This was an uncharacteristically forceful speech on a network wary of condemning the President’s behavior. Williams noted there was no objection to her words on set and her partners were supportive.

Four hours later, Twitter came alive.

The Fallout

Williams noticed that her Twitter feed was a mix of anger and threats for a number of days. “I didn’t think the attraction would be so strong for so long.” She had to hire private security, and in an interview with “Extra” she discussed the death threats coming her way.

She looked at the tweets. Williams gave a reason she repeated earlier on in the session. “I’ve never been willing to back down from a respectful dialogue.” But they became increasingly more threatening.

“You need to die. Somebody’s gonna get you. You’re gonna meet your maker.”

At first, she didn’t consider any of her actions as being disruptive. “I just wasn’t being a coward,” Williams explained. She knew it would cost her and a legion of followers, many from Fox, wouldn’t see her as the same.  But she didn’t expect this.

The fallout continued as it affected promotional events around her book sales. Stores and promotions were hesitant to get involved.

The Key Lesson? Know the Costs of Disruption

Williams questions the ongoing conversation about authentic brand voices.

“We talk a lot about the desire for authenticity. But I push back on that. I think that what people really want is to reinforce their idea of you, and what they think you are. And when you disrupt that, it can cost you.”

We see the concerns for large brands as more and more venture into similar territory. Millennial buying behavior forces brands to have a point-of-view, and it now becomes critical to calculate the cost of disruption. Marketers and agencies should budget and plan responses accordingly. Additionally, brands should determine how they’ll work with social networks to report content that violates platforms’ terms of service.

In a bittersweet ending, Williams’ authenticity opened the door to an opportunity at Fox Sports.

Her costs of disruption were personal and professional. Williams’ positions and docket affected her job, online presence, and dating life (“You don’t find too many people swiping right when they read my employer.”) After this experience, she factors all of this into her business costs and (most importantly) her end goal.

Potential mates may have swiped left on her employer, but Eboni K. Williams continues to swipe right on Disruption. Brands can, too.

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