Tag Archives: trolling

Teaching Trolling: Management and Strategy

Top GIFT from AEJMC-PRD 2018

Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by Feb. 5, 2018. A blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Katie Place. First published online on August 17, 2018.


Leslie Rasmussen

Leslie Rasmussen, Xavier University

Teaching Trolling: Management and Strategy


The assignment developed after many discussions over Wendy’s response to online trolls and its subsequent Super Bowl 2017 commercial, which was inspired by a trolling incident (Griner, 2017). Wendy’s generated online and offline buzz, and sparked a trend by tackling trolls head-on.  Several months prior to the Wendy’s incident, the Cincinnati Zoo similarly faced an onslaught of trolling after the death of its Lowland gorilla, Harambe. Trolls bombarded the Zoo’s Twitter account with comments and memes about Harambe, prompting the Zoo to shut down its Twitter account for two months (Williams, 2016). Xavier University is located in Cincinnati, thus it was natural that classes began comparing the two cases, the differing approaches, and discussing the impact the death of Harambe had on online culture. It was also used as an example of how a meme can be converted into social capital (Fussell Sisco & Brummette, 2016) and ultimately applied to network theory (Wellman, 2001). The memes included images of Harambe along with varying comments mocking the Zoo, listing things Harambe could no longer do, and showing Harambe in heavenly clouds (Feldman, 2016). Harambe was dubbed “the perfect meme” (Rao, 2016, para. 2) and made it nearly impossible for the Zoo to regain control of the story.

In the Zoo’s case, the capital was so powerful that it exacerbated its crisis situation. Students were able to assess the case using contingency theory (Cancel, Cameron, Sallott, & Mitrook, 1997) to understand the factors influencing an organization’s stance along the advocacy-accommodation continuum. Ultimately, the result was a series of assessment and analysis assignments that culminated in a final strategic trolling creative brief. Throughout the building assignments, students examined how organizations deal with trolls or troll-like behaviors, and why some consider trolling other organizations or consumers as part of a broader strategy.


Students were able to accomplish the following outcomes:

  • Understand three theories used in public relations and communication (social capital theory, network theory, contingency theory)
  • Assess complex cases by supporting arguments with each theory
  • Use theory to build a strategy for strategic trolling.


Student feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Trolling has challenged some of the long-held beliefs regarding crisis communication, and the assignment forced students to consider an alternative route to managing a creative and potentially damaging situation. Later, it allowed them to harness three theories to inform a creative approach to incorporating trolling or troll-like behavior as part of a broader strategy. Organization-on-organization trolling is certainly a trend. The overall goal of the assignments was to consider trolling as goal-oriented. The concept was initially challenging, but the final assignments were creative, fun, and harnessed the three primary theories learned in the course.


Cancel, A. E., Cameron, G. T., Sallot, L. M., & Mitrook, M. A. (1997). It depends: A contingency theory of accommodation in public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research9(1), 31-63. https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532754xjprr0901_02

Feldman, B. (2016, July 27). The dark internet humor of Harambe jokes. New York Magazine. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/07/harambe-forever.html

Fussell Sisco, H., & Brummette, J. (2016). Online information sharing: A planned  behavior for building social capital. Public Relations Journal, 10(2). Retrieved from http://apps.prsa.org/Intelligence/PRJournal/current-edition/current/sisco_nz3.pdf

Griner, D. (2017, January 3). Wendy’s put a troll on ice with 2017’s best tweet so far. AdWeek. Retrieved from https://www.adweek.com/creativity/wendys-put-troll-ice-2017s-best-tweet-so-far-175334

Rao, V. (2016, September 6). How Harambe became the perfect meme. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/09/harambe-the-perfect-meme/498743

Wellman, B. (2001). Computer networks as social networks. Science, 293(5537), 2031-2034. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1065547

Williams, D. (2016, August 23). Harambe memes prompt Cincinnati Zoo to delete Twitter accounts. CNN. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2016/08/23/us/cincinnati-zoo-harambe-twitter/index.html

Appendix A

Trolling Assessment (Pre-Assignments)

For this series of assignments, we will explore cases involving organizations being trolled by people and by other organizations. We begin by exploring trolling and its effects on organizations to determine best management practices. Next, you are challenged to consider trolling as part of a broader social media strategy. You must consider brand voice, industry environment, audiences, and the consequences of engaging in this type of strategy. In all portions, you must consider contingency theory or other appropriate theories reviewed in class that apply to the decision-making process when determining strategy.

Throughout the assignments, you must discern the purpose of memes and consider methods to convert memes to social capital. Initially, it may be difficult to extract strategy from troll-like behavior; however, it has become increasingly necessary to explore. For example, brands like Wendy’s and T-Mobile have incorporated trolling into strategy and brand voice.

The multi-level assignment includes the following:

  • Case assessment and application of social capital theory and contingency theory (or other appropriate theories reviewed in class); determine best practices for management
  • Case/client analysis
  • Strategic development/creative brief

Case Assessment: Cincinnati Zoo Harambe crisis – Online personas trolling an organization

  • How did online trolls convert Harambe into social capital? Assess all elements of social capital, network theory, etc. to analyze the case. Next, using the contingency theory and the advocacy-accommodation continuum, determine and assess the factors influencing the zoo’s response. Conclude with your overall assessment of effectiveness. Things to consider: The purpose of memes – or social capital – in an effort to think about trolling as part of a broader social media strategy. How can a particular meme be converted to social capital?

Case Analysis: Because they got high: T-Mobile’s strategic trolling of Verizon on 4/20 – Organization-on-organization trolling

  • How did T-Mobile turn an earnings report into social capital? Assess all elements of social capital, network theory, etc. to analyze the case. Next, using the contingency theory and the advocacy-accommodation continuum, determine and assess the factors influencing T-Mobile’s actions and Verizon’s response. Conclude with your overall assessment of effectiveness.

Appendix B

Strategic Trolling Creative Brief


Identify an organization you believe could benefit from engaging in troll-like behavior. In the last year, we’ve seen several organizations engage in such behavior with social media users and with other organizations. Some have had great success; others flopped and apologized. We’ve also seen some organizations engage this way as part of social media strategy or a broader strategy.

Consider how all artifacts will be used as social capital for the brand. Can you use the memes to connect with target groups or build a network? What conversation do you want to occur around the memes? How might the meme self-replicate?

Project Overview

In a brief paragraph, describe the project. Hit the overarching theme and intent.

Statement of Communication Problem or Opportunity

In one complete sentence, describe the communication problem or opportunity to be addressed. Consider how you would like to frame the problem or opportunity.

Target Audience

  • Target audience(s) and secondary audience(s)
  • Demographic information
  • Psychographic information
  • Brand character(s)


In one sentence, briefly describe the overarching goal.

Strategic Objectives

Develop appropriate communication objectives that adhere to the SMART criteria.

Brand Voice

In a brief paragraph, describe the brand voice for the project. List three key words to describe the tone of the content.

Key Messages  

Provide a bulleted list of key messages you want to communicate to the target(s). For each bullet, identify which audiences are targeted.

Desired Action or Response

Briefly describe the desired action or response from each target audience. What do you want them to do? How do you want them to respond? What conversation should occur around your social capital and among your target audiences?

Creative Strategies & Tactics

Remember, strategy or strategies should involve trolling. Determine the number of tactics based on appropriateness of strategies, client, and overall vision. Include the objective achieved with the strategy and corresponding tactics. Also include the audience targeted for each. When developing strategies and tactics, remember to consider the risk factors and potential response from this approach.


Thoroughly explain the purpose of the content. Thoroughly address how the content is converted to social capital. You will need to explain how the copy and images will connect with target audiences or build a network. Explain the conversation you intend to create around the content. Explain how the content may self-replicate and where it will lead.

Creative Samples

Create 5 samples of the memes used to strategically troll another organization. Include all corresponding content. For example, if the meme will be released on Twitter by a person or organization handle, what text will accompany the image? Think about the commentary T-Mobile’s John Legere included in his tweets with the #VerHIGHzon memes.

Reflection & Theory

Clearly indicate how social capital theory, contingency theory, and/or network theory shaped your strategy. Explain how and why you believe your approach involves all facets of social capital theory and how it informed your strategic decision. The same applies for contingency theory and network theory.

Additional details for each section are provided in class.