DC workforce should prepare for insidious new threat


Washington D.C., never the most serene place for politicians, journalists and other public figures, is about to become a lot more treacherous. For the foreseeable future, anyone and everyone who makes a living in the public domain will have to worry about a new terrifying cyber threat: attack by smartphone.

Just ask CNN anchor Chris Cuomo. He recently responded to a heckler with a profane response that was captured on video, went viral, and was covered extensively by traditional news outlets.

In Cuomo’s case, he was baited by a man whose goal seems to have been to harass and embarrass. It was a classless act of pseudo gonzo journalism, but it worked. Referring to him as “Fredo,” an insult that both mocked Cuomo’s Italian heritage and asserted that the brother of New York’s governor was akin to the weak son from the Godfather movies, was enough to prompt a profanity-laced tirade and threats of physical assault from the fired-up journalist.

With his reaction, Cuomo took a bad situation and made it worse. But it’s hard to prepare for something like this, right? Wrong. In fact, a critical mass of people in Washington can and should be preparing for their own inevitable run-ins with gonzos and trolls hoping to elicit unflattering reactions that they can share with the world. 

Erasing the line between public persons and their private lives is one area where the hard left and far right are finding common ground in hyper-partisan times. A group of anti-fascists from the radical group Antifa gathered at the home of Fox News host and father of four Tucker Carlson, chanting menacing threats and breaking the door of his home as his terrified wife sought shelter and called the police. In August of 2018, C-SPAN contacted the FBI after an on-air caller threatened to shoot CNN hosts Brian Stelter and Don Lemon for criticizing supporters of President Donald Trump.

The phenomenon of accosting political adversaries and filming the encounters for online consumption will continue to accelerate as technology improves and our political schism worsens. Even public figures on the B- and C-lists will need to safeguard their public images in an era when one viral video can potentially end a career.

For some time now, public figures have had to navigate the minefield of social media. Abstain from social media and you are labeled a dinosaur. Put out a steady stream of unremarkable content and risk being ignored or derided as boring. Go heavy on the snark and pick some fights and you will invite withering criticism at the very time your follower counts skyrocket.

But a trend starting to emerge now is insidious: a hybrid between online bullying and bullying in real life. Even semi-public figures can expect to be poked and prodded into a reaction — to score political points or just for sport — and then be castigated for reacting.

It is hard to pinpoint a single moment that signaled the dissolution of the barrier between public and private for people in politics; rather, it has been a slow spiral downward that has accelerated to warp speed thanks to the internet. The phenomenon of gotcha antagonizing is far more likely to get worse than better. So, what can be done about it?

Public figures of all types should invest the time now to imagine future scenarios in which they might find themselves accosted by camera-wielding provocateurs. For decades, people under fire have resorted to uttering “no comment,” but those two words are more laden with baggage than magic. Instead, it is worth rehearsing a series of measured responses that take the high road and present the speaker as composed and confident.

Of course, saying absolutely nothing and calmly ignoring the instigator is always an option. Videos containing a dismissive reaction and no dialogue seldom go viral since they lack the sizzle of verbal combat.

Not so long ago, celebrities and politicians had to fear the emergence of videos showcasing illegal, immoral, or even inappropriate behavior. But today, public figures must also worry about people from the general public who, unlike journalists, are not trained or bound by a code of journalistic ethics and are more interested in creating drama than being fair.

The age of digital confrontation has arrived, and D.C. has emerged as ground zero for this new form of political and social media warfare. With legions of culture warriors heavily armed with stunts and smartphones, anyone who lives even partly in the public eye should drill and train today. That way they will be fully prepared for the inevitable moment they suddenly find themselves being ambushed.

Evan Nierman is Founder and CEO of Red Banyan (@redbanyan), an international public relations and crisis management firm.

Tags Antifa Bullying Chris Cuomo Don Lemon Donald Trump Journalism ethics and standards Social media Tucker Carlson Viral video Washington D.C.

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