This week’s bulletin looks at reputation, court cases, and how to manage targeted abuse.
Having previously written a case study about James Watt of BrewDog and how he handled allegations of bullying within the organisation, the BBC documentary repeating these allegations and hinting he was using his position for sexual impropriety, I was interested to read that he had won a court case recently concerning these matters against his former girlfriend. The story was that a former girlfriend, Emili Ziem, approached him and asked for £25,000 each time she unmasked trolls who were personally attacking him and sending unfounded allegations to his friends and family. He ended up paying her £100,000 for the unmasking of four trolls, but began to get suspicious and brought in forensic cyber experts who were able to prove in court that she had orchestrated the campaign against him. He won the case, and she was ordered to pay back the £100,000 plus £500,000 in damages and costs. According to the newspapers, she had already spent the money on high living, claiming that the money had come from the death of a distant relative.
How to Deal with Targeted Abuse
There are three interesting aspects of this story. The first is trolling. Being a celebrity or a name in the public view usually means you will attract haters, regardless of how accomplished, nice, or worthy you are. For example, the public may be having a go at you about a physical feature, just like schoolyard bullies. I am thinking of Ellie Simmonds, OBE, the former Paralympian swimmer, who is presently taking part in Strictly, and what happened to JK Rowling over her views on transgender people. This abuse is almost part of being a celebrity and some struggle and get upset by it, others brush it off and are not the least bothered.
What was different in the James Watt case was that the abuse was specifically to damage his reputation, hurt him, and to basically extort money out of him. If you want to do a character assassination of someone it does help to play into an existing narrative, and he had already been accused by former staff members of cultivating a bullying culture at work, plus the allegations made in the BBC documentary.
In this case, he was able to identify his attackers and take them to court since the smear campaign seemed to be orchestrated by one person. I presume this was enough for the abuse to stop. If you personally are the victim of an abuse campaign you may not be able to identify the accusers, if they are savvy, they know about the accusation and who to tell to cause you maximum reputational damage. There is always a thin line between general abuse that you can ignore in the hopes that if you don’t rise to their accusations they will get bored and go away, to a concentrated campaign which gets traction and starts to damage your reputation. I think vigilant monitoring of your reputation online is key! If you believe that damage is being done then you need to deal with it proactively.
I have heard a number of crisis communication professionals and journalists say never sue someone for libel, it can be ruinously expensive. The “Wagatha Christie” case is reported to have cost £3m in legal fees. The court case reminds people of the accusation which gains the interest of the press who then cover the case again. The initial libel is repeated again and again as part of the coverage, and sometimes it doesn’t matter who won. In the “Wagatha Christie” case, it was widely reported that public sympathy was with Coleen Rooney before she won the case. In the USA, in the trial of Johnny Depp V Amber Heard, public sympathy, on the whole, was on Johnny’s side throughout the case, in spite of him losing a similar case in the UK.
James Watt said, “I want to say I didn’t go to court lightly, but I have been harassed, defrauded and defamed, and it has deeply affected me, my family, and my business. I had no choice”. Taking Emili Ziem to court was the best way to draw a line under the accusations, especially as the court found that they were malicious. He can now say that he was vindicated in a court of law, and as there was a smear campaign against him, it makes it difficult for newspapers and the BBC to repeat the accusations made early last year. This case in particular was helped as there was money involved and potential extortion. If Emili had orchestrated the campaign without asking for money, the court case might have been much more difficult to win.
Make Sure There is a Good Picture
In most newspaper articles about the court case, there are lots of pictures from Emili taken from her Instagram account, “a 29-year-old scientist and model”, looking very glamorous. Her pictures contrast with many pictures of people mentioned in the news and on TV, where they have found unflattering and blurry pictures from social media accounts. Make sure that if you are going to be in the news that there are some flattering photos of you on social media so that the newspapers might use them!
As with the earlier accusations against James Watt, I think he has had good advice and handled the situation well. As soon as you become successful and you have courted publicity to achieve that success, there will always be people who resent it and want you ‘cut you down to size’, or see you fail. You need to monitor what people are saying about you and make a judgement call on when to do something about it, or whether to ignore what they are saying.