Posted on October 31, 2016
Most readers of this fine blog may not know who Peter David is. But to millions of comic book and science fiction fans, Peter David is a recognizable name. To thousands of loyal followers, Peter David is the Writer of Stuff and they tend to place him in the same esteem as pizza and their own children. (Yes, the two are equal). While many of Peter David’s fans are not interested in Canadian politics or public affairs, the two spheres briefly overlapped a few weeks ago. Peter David answered a question about Romani representation in comics. It went as well as you can imagine. Cue the negative coverage. It’s the kind of reaction that would normally cause an individual reputational harm. Had it spread like fire, it would have introduced David to whole new audiences as a racist. Luckily for him, that didn’t happen. And he can thank his rabid fan base, which served as a buffer. Let’s explore this further.
Community Mapping in a Crisis
First, let’s talk about what community mapping involves. The degree to which an individual is well-known within a specific audience, is easy to find. Digital analysis includes the mapping of people’s interests using ‘affinity categories’ or topics based on the content they engage with most online. They show which subjects a given social media profile or accounts’ followers or friends are also interested in. Conversation around a topic or affinity category can also be analyzed for demographic information. Using affinities, we know for certain that typical readers of our blog are not particularly interested in comic books or Peter David. In a crisis, audience affinity data helps articulate which groups are most upset by an issue and how they feel they were wronged. Understanding nuances in how a narrow interest group communicates helps with any messaging situation, but in a crisis, affinities can be used to develop the most effective response using language that best connects those impacted to the issue.
What Is Buffer Content
Second, let’s go over buffer content. Buffer content is exactly what it sounds like: it’s the web links or pieces of digital content that insulate online entities from bad press. For a very general example, most businesses use internal links to have a number of their own website pages appear in search engine results and act as literal buffers against unflattering news stories or competitors’ pages appearing in the same place or being closely associated with their brand or keyword. In a developing crisis, using owned social media channels to share content, advocating for a specific point of view, and responding in line with a company’s message, can shift the narrative in your brand’s favour. More importantly, by amplifying content and reaching people unaware of the incident, these accounts can stop potentially damaging narratives from spreading. When used correctly, they can contain a reputational crisis by addressing applicable online communities with deliberate messaging.
The Public Affairs Emergency
So what happened with Peter David? On October 7, he was on a panel at New York Comicon. When asked a question about Romani representation in superhero comics, he responded with an anecdote about gypsies crippling their children to make them more effective beggars. He also started yelling at the person who asked. This video of the incident quickly circulated on social media. David eventually apologized, but not before doubling down on his initial stance. As can be expected in the world of comics, most coverage was online and on social media. In similar cases with niche celebrities, and especially when the story breaks through a video on social media, online outrage drives mainstream coverage. People angrily tweeted at David and activity related to his name or in his interest category skyrocketed. However, because David’s existing fan base contributed an incredible amount of support —and in some cases rebuttals — overall, there wasn’t an overwhelming amount of negative commentary that stood out.
Looking at the sentiment of tweets referencing or directly mentioning David before the incident, 36% were positive, 50% were neutral, and 13% were negative. These numbers include negative general discussions about his work, including literary criticisms. They’re normal numbers—nothing to get worried about. In fact, the negatives are negligible. Sure, overall volume of the conversation was high, but the ratio of negative to positive or neutral sentiment determines whether or not there is a crisis. And at this point, before he made his unfortunate comments, he was by no means in a crisis.
Social Media Followers Become Your Advocates
The week of the incident, social media posts about Peter David increased about 630%. What’s amazing is that overall sentiment only changed to 20% positive, 62% neutral, and 18% negative. Let’s just pause on that for a moment. He accused gypsies of deliberately paralyzing their own, and the conversation around him was only 18% negative. Few prominent individuals would get away with that. Sure, the Romani issue had more volume than any other topic but it did not dominate the overall conversation. This is because of who was responsible for posts related to his response on Romani representation. Before the incident David had 14,694 Twitter followers. Eighteen days after the incident, he actually had four more followers: On October 25, he was at 14,698. Though the outburst drew criticism from Romani activists and outlets covering the convention, it did not resonate with David’s existing follower base. There’s a lesson here: how your stakeholders or online community react to an event plays an important role in contextualizing any damage to your brand.
The majority of negative posts were from accounts that were not part of his usual fan base: they made one or two comments about the incident and then moved on to other things. At the same time, David’s fan base was fuming over (spoilers) the death of Jamie Madrox in the latest Death of X issue, which undid the happy ending David had given one of his most popular characters in the new line of story continuity. Immediately after the incident, there were a number of posts calling David a racist. However, as these accounts never engaged with David-related content again, the steady stream of complaints about how Jamie Madrox — aka, Multiple Man — died eventually became the focus of conversations. These initial tweets on his death developed into different users discussing why they didn’t like the comic and others sharing their favourite Madrox moments from when David was writing the character.
From October 8-20, the percentage of social media posts calling David a racist declined from 10% of all relevant conversation, to less than one percent. At the same time, conversations about recent Marvel comics and their relation to David’s work also picked up on Twitter. They started at 6% at the beginning of October, and have since grown to roughly 10% of the activity related to David. Anyone scanning his Twitter feed looking to write about recent developments would see some content related to racism and his Romani response, but would also see much more content about comics. It would appear that it’s business as usual, and his reputation stands mostly in tact.
Of course David is suffering some fallout. The point is that his passionate fans were able lessen the damage. Remember, these people are also his key audience. As long as they support David, there’s reason to continue booking him at conventions and stocking his books. In other words, this was not a reputational crisis. While the incident certainly offended a lot of people, it did not bother those responsible for building Peter David’s reputation in the first place.
Protecting Your Reputation Before A Crisis
Peter David has been indirectly grooming his audience for online advocacy his entire career. Most —if not all —of his comic books, novels, or television scripts include specific references to his other works, encouraging dedicated fans to spot the allusions and connect the ‘Peter David Universe’ in their heads. He regularly engages with social media content on public channels and maintains a dedicated fan site, which is updated regularly and houses more niche content about his interconnected work. He cultivates his own affinity category or sub topic within general comic books by first creating content necessary for such a niche community to form, and then by rewarding people who engage with it by engaging back and providing more of the same type of content they enjoyed in the first place. Over the years, this has encouraged more and more broader comic book fans to join the ranks of Peter David fans, immersing themselves in his work, discussing it online, and eventually adopting common quirks in taste or expression. Because they become so wholly involved with the material, criticisms of Peter David’s work become criticisms of his audience’s sensibilities, which can lead them to defend him more aggressively than fans typically defend their favourite author. The kind of behavior his fans demonstrated earlier this month dilutes conversation in small affinity categories or niche interests, like Peter David, making it appear to people without much context (and especially to most monitoring software) that nothing is out of the ordinary. David may not have asked his followers to defend him online, but he did cultivate the kind of fandom that insulates any public figure from certain degrees of reputational damage.
This should not imply that whatever is happening on social media is fact. However, in the world of public perception, what people are saying in the moment can be almost as important as what is actually true. Dedicated followings are the best kind of buffer content, because as soon as a crisis hits, they automatically respond more directly than any individual or company involved ever could, they dilute conversation to lessen immediate damage, and they help push negative content out of search-engine results pages and social feeds.
Peter David is an extreme example, but his community management can be applied well beyond comics. Broadly speaking, buffer content should act like David’s version of Jamie Madrox/Multiple Man — gradually building and consistently maintaining an audience before a crisis (or for the fans: using cloning powers to efficiently learn new skills and make more allies to avoid swarming his enemies in a fight). At a minimum, a little bit of community management or affinity mapping can help determine if a public embarrassment is really a reputational crisis based on who exactly was offended. Through affinity mapping and then community maintenance, businesses can duplicate what Peter David did and develop a passionate audience that safeguards their digital reputation before contained embarrassments become public shames.