Don’t Feed the Trolls: Lessons about Online Criticism

Megan McArdle’s Washington Post column about criticism of Cracker Barrel’s meatless sausage reminds us how far down the rabbit hole we’ve fallen in responding to online trolls and haters.

Her essay addresses negative responses to the restaurant’s Facebook post introducing a meatless sausage option. Among the posted comments: “You just lost your customer base.” “Get woke, go broke.”


Is civil society so damaged that politicizing breakfast food is the new standard? Do people really feel better when they spew hateful rhetoric? Yes.

To be sure this is a subjective thought, but there are important events that generate visceral online responses. But for every serious topic raised online there are 10 pseudo-issues that escalate. Needlessly. And there are plenty of people throwing fuel on the fire.

Sometimes we don’t understand context and proportion when deciding how to respond to trolls.  The Cracker Barrel post garnered more than 7,000 comments in three days—most were people bantering with a handful of troll-worthy statements.  That seems like a lot of comments in a short time.

But viewed with a wider lens 7,000 comments is insignificant. Each year, Cracker Barrel says it serves 210 million biscuits, 162 million eggs and 41 million servings of grits to 230 million customers.

In the meatless sausage episode, Cracker Barrel took the right approach. Ignore the cranks. It seemingly recognized and understood the comments for what they were: people who are not customers. Doubtless, Cracker Barrel’s social administrators found some of the conversations entertaining, though.

Fans quickly defended the company. Posted one, “There’s nothing “woke” about getting with the times by offering a variety of menu items to choose from. Now I like you guys even more!”    

There are several valuable crisis lessons:

  • Sometimes we have to suffer fools silently. Listening and assessing online chatter helps us understand and measure true stakeholder sentiment. Most of the commenters were probably not Cracker Barrel customers.
  • Don’t feed the trolls.  Not every snarky comment deserves a response. We should, however, leave them on the site, unless they violate community standards, e.g., if they contain racist or vulgar language.
  • Strong stakeholder relationships need care and feeding.  If our stakeholders are advocates before an issue arises, they will defend us when trolls try to stir the pot.
  • Know the difference between customers and those who ‘Like’ or ‘Follow’ the company’s social feeds. They are not synonymous.
  • View negative online reactions from a wide lens. Even thousands of comments may have little meaning when compared to an entire population, such as the 2.5 billion Facebook users.

Adapt or die? We cannot view social media as nothing more than a sandbox for Gens Y and Z. Instead, embrace how media technology has changed the company-customer dynamic. Once you do, start adapting strategy to leverage changes and build respect and resilience in the face of criticism.

Deb Hileman, SCMP, is president and CEO, Institute for Crisis Management.