As more and more people step into the public eye, PR professionals need to be able to handle persistent, obsessive communications.
By Matthew Rock,
What links a 19th-century prime minister, the shiny HQ of a top retail bank and tennis icon Monica Seles? The answer is a sinister, little-discussed issue. It’s something that has been around for decades, but it’s now being magnified by social media and the expectation that public figures and brands be accessible to everyone all the time.
It’s called a ‘fixated threat’, or sometimes plain ‘fixation’. Historically, it was mainly royalty and heads of state who were subject to persistent, obsessive communications (and potentially threats), but the issue is now spreading beyond this select group. Today’s victims range from sports and entertainment stars to company directors and even people on the front line of the public sector and in customer service roles.
At one big utility company, for example, the corporate affairs director recently tried to persuade a group of senior executives to become more visible and accessible on social media. No thanks, they told him. “Fear of [fixated threats] is prevalent among senior executives,” he explains – especially among those who aren’t digital natives. More than one source reports that some TV presenters are so alarmed at the possibility of triggering a backlash from obsessive followers that they are choosing not to cover certain news stories.
Andrew Wolfe Murray is a specialist in fixation. As a Metropolitan Police investigator, he was a founding member of the Fixated Threat Assessment Centre (FTAC) and now runs consultancy Theseus Risk Management alongside former royal household security liaison manager Philip Allen. “It’s pretty much a requirement for brands and individuals to provide channels to engage with the public – that’s what’s demanded of you,” Wolfe Murray says.
“This is only going to grow, but while there is plenty of advice about how to drive up public engagement, no one’s really taking a look at what is received through those channels, particularly what tends to get dwelt upon or written about at length,” he adds. And while the majority of communications from the public will be positive and appropriate, “a significant minority” will be rather more threatening, Wolfe Murray notes. The psychology of these fixations is complex, and motivations can range from infatuation (generally with entertainers and sports stars) through to profound grudges.
Your organisation may have dedicated contact centres or customer service procedures in place, but if an individual is obsessive enough, they may decide to step outside of the formal processes and start sending angry letters to the CEO’s office, showing up at AGMs or being a persistent nuisance on the phone. At its most acute, this can have “a huge knock-on effect in terms of brand reputation and performance impairment”, Wolfe Murray says.
As a result, understanding how to manage fixated threats is now an important part of the job for comms and public relations professionals.
Love and hate in the A-list
Scott Field is communications director for the British Olympic Association. As Team GB prepares for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, fixated threats are one of his top concerns, particularly given that unwanted attention from the public could affect the performance of the athletes. “The question we ask ourselves is: how do we protect them during a period that could change their lives forever?” he asks.
These days, top sports stars go to great lengths to build a personal brand, but having huge numbers of followers can have unforeseen consequences. There were rumours at the last Olympics in Rio that some athletes were being put off their stride by unpleasant messages.
By contrast, the GB women’s hockey squad collectively abandoned social media during the Games and ended up winning gold.
One Team GB insider reveals a growing concern about fans of rival athletes using social media to disrupt the performance and preparations of British competitors.
For example, British swimmer Duncan Scott has a fierce rivalry with Sun Yang of China, who served a three-month ban for doping in 2014. Scott made his feelings known earlier this year by refusing to share a podium with Yang at the World Championships in South Korea. That situation will be well worth monitoring, as an Australian swimmer who snubbed Yang in the same way then started to receive a barrage of angry comments on his Instagram posts.
“No one is here to stop the development of athletes’ profiles,” says Field, “but it’s our job as the comms team to help maintain an optimal performance environment, free from noise and disruption.” He is working with Theseus Risk Management so that all Team GB athletes will be able to draw on experts and resources if they experience any problems.
The trouble with tennis
Tennis has some specific problems associated with fixation. Firstly, it’s an individual sport where spectators can get close to the stars. Secondly, the top players have enormous personal followings: Roger Federer has nearly 15 million Facebook followers, close to 13 million on Twitter and seven million on Instagram.
Over the years, there have been a number of instances of individuals becoming obsessed with players, including Monica Seles, Rafael Nadal and Petra Kvitova.
Such is the growth of the problem in tennis that meetings have been held between the tennis authorities and social media platforms to figure out how to minimise unwanted attention.
But there’s something else at play too. Simon Higson, VP for corporate communications at the governing body for men’s tennis, the ATP, explains that “the growth of social media, combined with increased attention on the sport across various digital platforms, has brought with it an emerging trend whereby players can be exposed to abuse, threats or unwanted communication – particularly from disgruntled gamblers”.
Of course, there have always been disgruntled punters, obsessive fans and crank letters. But there are some new dimensions to the issue of fixation that comms professionals need to understand. Here, a number of experts explain some specific areas of concern…
1 There’s more of it:
While it’s hard to put precise figures on this, the problem of fixation appears to be growing. In the year to March 2019, there were 207,566 recorded incidents of malicious communication in the UK, up from 159,377 in the previous year (the Office for National Statistics does note that changes in the way incidents are recorded may be a factor here).
In the year to March 2018, 4% of the adult population (aged 16 to 59) said they had experienced stalking in the previous 12 months, according to the ONS. David James, lead clinician at FTAC and co-author of Stalking Risk Profile, believes that “stalking is probably even more prevalent than the surveys suggest”, as men are less likely to report it. MPs are getting “a fantastic amount” of hate mail, he adds, and quite a number are considering leaving politics as a result.
“It definitely is spreading out beyond the traditional celebrity client,” says Emily Williams, who used to work in British military intelligence and is now senior associate for intelligence at law firm Schillings. “The human motivations behind fixation probably haven’t changed much, but it’s so much easier to do than it would have been 10 or 20 years ago.”
Theseus recently conducted an analysis of the last 100 cases of fixation that it advised on in the private sector. It found that the majority were driven by resentment. These, in turn, tended to fall into two sub-groups, Philip Allen explains: ‘pre-embittered’ individuals latching on to an existing cause or complaint, and those not previously embittered who become aggrieved as a result of a clear chain of events.
In the private sector, as in the public sector, fixated people are likely to be on a highly personal quest for justice, typically making unrealistic demands for money or a public apology. “Interestingly,” says Allen, “examples of resentful fixation in the private sector take significantly longer to emerge precisely because they exist within organisations’ complaints procedures. So by the time that procedure has been exhausted, behaviour can very quickly escalate to physical approaches, disruption and threats of legal or reputational harm.”
2 Anyone can be a target:
The nature of what it means to be a ‘public figure’ is also changing. As Williams explains, “just because you’re not famous to everyone doesn’t mean you’re not famous to someone”.
Maybe you’re the boss of an obscure company with an aggrieved ex-employee or customer. Or maybe you’re an executive in a business working in a controversial field. Or perhaps you’re a doctor who could, in the eyes of a grieving family member, have done more to save a loved one’s life.
All these are real cases of fixated threats. In one incident, a customer of a well-known bank attacked its London HQ with a sledgehammer, having previously threatened self-immolation at his local branch and engaged in a protracted legal case. Katy Bourne, a former senior police officer in Sussex, was obsessively pursued by a man for several years. It started out as keyboard-warrior stuff but, as she told the Daily Telegraph, “it started to get quite personal, and he started to focus on people around me, people in my office and my chief executive, making allegations that were quite upsetting”.
In all these instances, there’s the risk of reputations getting shredded for all concerned.
3 Digging dirt is easy:
Twenty years ago, stalking would have been a full-time job; nowadays, all you need is a laptop and a bit of attitude.
At Schillings, the team carries out a rather brutal exercise that involves researching the client and then showing them the results to prove just how much information can be found about them online. The answer is usually a lot.
“However painful that conversation may be – and it can be really quite unpleasant presenting findings about what their private life might look like in the wrong hands – it’s nothing on how painful it would be in the public domain,” says Williams. Her advice to any company about to make itself more accessible: “If somebody were to look into your potential board member, what could they find, and are you comfortable with that?”
4 Our culture is feeding it:
FTAC’s David James believes that a culture in which people expect to have their grievances resolved is feeding the problem of fixation. “People have been told that they have a right to complain, so they have a feeling of entitlement,” he says. Rail companies, utilities and banks now expect to receive a flood of abuse when they announce changes that affect their customers. Most of this will die out in a few days, but some people won’t give up and will then pose a risk of escalation.
5 There’s a market for fixation:
Anyone in the public eye could be of interest to someone. There have been cases of people using fake accounts to make out that they’re part of a celebrity’s friendship group. They then work on the star’s real, usually peripheral, friends to elicit gossip and, in particular, pictures.
Phil Hartley, a senior associate at Schillings, has noticed another nasty development, with stalkers setting up multiple fake social media accounts with which to contact celebrities. “They’ll then interact with them in this quite complex way with lots and lots of different personalities,” he says. “It can be very Jekyll-and-Hyde.”
6 Instagram is a trouble spot:
As it currently stands, anyone can send a direct message to anyone else on Instagram, and those messages are not filtered. Indeed, Instagram cannot see or filter messages unless they are specifically reported. On Twitter, by contrast, you can only be messaged by someone you follow. As a result, it’s widely agreed that the likelihood of abuse on Instagram is higher.
A version of this article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q4 2019.