Tuesday 8 October 2019

So, you've been shamed. By Keren David.

As writers, we generally don't set out to offend. Most of us  -  especially children's writers, I would suggest -  are benign folk, conflict avoiders, who tread carefully around other people's feelings. We hate to upset people. We stay away from fights.
(Not all of us. But I'll come to that later) 

But sometimes we do offend, even when we don't mean to. We write books according to our values and we live according to our values, and somehow we wake up one day and find people all over the internet (well, mainly Twitter), calling us out. We are racist, say, or we are rude. We have written about someone else's culture and got it wrong. We have stepped on the toes of people less powerful than ourselves. We have written something insulting. We have made people feel bad. 

BUT, we say. We didn't mean THAT. You can't call me THAT. Have you considered THIS? I wasn't writing about YOU, I was writing about ME.

If we're not very careful, we find that our words make things worse. Not only have we caused offence, but now we are denying that offence. We are punching down. And when we point out that we are not that powerful, that we are laughably weak and alone, we are told that we are blinkered and blind and arrogant and wrong.

You get the picture. This is generally known as a twitter storm. A public kangeroo court in which there are no rules, and no limits to the punishments. Books are withdrawn. People lose their jobs. Authors at the centre of these storms feel battered and (often) baffled. They may have an inkling of what they have done wrong (they may not). But what should they do now?

I was lucky enough to take part in the Society of Authors' Children's Writers and Illustrators' Group day conference last month. At the end of a long, sweaty day (it was hot, and the air conditioning in the SoA's new offices wasn't working) I chaired a panel of PR experts who were there to give advice on what to do when you find yourself at the centre of such a storm. They were independent publicists Emma Draude and Fritha Lindquist, Rosi Crawley from Walker Books and Neil Watts from PR company RMS. Neil specialises in reputation management, which means that when things get really, really bad -  when you've accidentally libelled the queen, or caused an oil spill in a river, or whatever - he is the man who will help you. In other words, the advice this panel was handing out was pure, solid gold.

I created three scenarios for them to comment on (mainly so we wouldn't get into the murky area of real people and events), and I wish I'd been in the audience, not on the panel so I could have written down every word they said. But here are the main tips I remember.

 1) Think ahead. Sit down with your publicist well before the book is published and talk about why you wrote it, why you made the choices you did, how you did your research. (I know we don't all have publicists. Use a friend if necessary). Be prepared for questions.

2) It is reasonable to expect your publishers to provide sensitivity readers for a project that might prove, err, sensitive. Ideally (if it won't mess up your writing) bring them in early. Listen to them. And make sure they feel respected, appreciated and (God forbid) not exploited.

3) Get media training. (When I said that writers couldn't afford this, they suggested that publishers could pay. Look, you might as well ask). 'Do not even think about going on broadcast media without media training'. I think it was Neil who said this. It was a little alarming.

4) Once a storm breaks...do nothing. Don't defend yourself. Don't argue. You may feel very isolated, but you are not alone. Don't do a thing until you have taken advice.

5) That advice may well involve apologising. Try hard to think about the other side's point of view. (Hard, I know, when someone is hurling insults at you). If you need to say sorry, then do. Don't attach caveats. Don't make excuses. 'Be kind' , they said. 

6) Keep what you say straightforward and simple. There was some talk about the sneaky way in which print journalists might twist your words. As a print journalist, I was able to refute this - but I would agree that it is best to keep your words simple, to have written out in front of you the answers you want to give, and not to get inveigled into long conversations. Unless you are talking to me, obviously. Be clear, is the key, and don't make things worse. 

7) Once that's done, it is fine to keep quiet. You do not have to go on and on and on. These storms do pass. Your career is not necessarily ruined. Your supporters may not have been vocal (it's scary to go against the crowd, and often just makes things worse) but they are there.

But what, I asked about the people I've seen who actually are offensive. Who seem to love that bad boy image? Who get drunk and say inappropriate things, whose books Get It Horribly Wrong, no matter what 'it' is and yet are mysteriously best-sellers. What advice would the experts give them?

Well, said Emma and Rosi and Fritha, they'd hate to work with someone like that. But Neil said, sometimes that's the person who want to be. That Guy. The one who builds a reputation on not caring what other people think. And if that's you -  be that person. It's not an easy reputation, but it can get results, and it can win admirers.

I mean, well beyond the world of books, we can all think of a few That Guys, doing well in their own terms right now.

The last tip they all gave is to read the book So, You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. I read it this weekend and yes it was AMAZING. Everyone should read it. I actually think it has changed my life. Because of course, our panel only gave half the advice. It told us what to do if we are subject to attack. Ronson's book makes you think about the times when you go on the attack and why. And that's what we all need to read. 


Sue Bursztynski said...

Fascinating post! This is not something I’ve ever been subjected to, though my children’s book on the history of crime in Australia has been withdrawn at schools because younger children were reading it, I’ve been asked not to talk about it in a school visit or restrict the chapters I discuss because a large percentage of the kids have fathers in jail or awaiting trial - and, in one case, a school which didn’t actually have a copy and hadn’t seen it told my publisher(who had commissioned the book) never to darken their doorway again for advertising it! So, I’ve offended, yes, but no Twitter storms!

The book sounds great, wonder if it’s in ebook?

Penny Dolan said...

I wasn't able to get to the SoA Day in the new London offices, so thank you for telling us about this session, Keren.

Also for your recommendation of the Ronson book.

Moira Butterfield said...

Reading the Ronson book made me want to leave Twitter. I only check it now for positive book-related news. I wouldn't reply to anyone negative. I once took gentle issue with some people being vile about the artists on the Sky Landscape of the Year TV programme. I supported those they were attacking and they turned their childish nasty fire on me. It was only a tiny thing but it put me off completely. I feel I have to be on it but I don't want to be on it. It's very broken.

catdownunder said...

I am reminded of a note above my late doctoral supervisor's desk, "I know you think you understood what I said but I am not sure you realise that what you heard is not what I meant".
Thanks for posting this - and for recommending the Ronson book.

Penny Dolan said...

I am not fond of Ronson's writing but the Shamed book that you recommended, Keren, does give an interesting and very chilling insight into aspects of the social media. And probably more.

LuWrites said...

Wish I'd been able to come to the meeting, Keren - sounds really interesting!