How to Host an Engaging Social Media Chat (and Keep the Trolls at Bay)

AMA Marketing News
Published in
8 min readFeb 27, 2018


Growth in the use of digital health communication channels has dramatically changed the nature of communication. The internet provides unparalleled opportunities to reach a range of individuals with vital information about health and a variety of other topics — and to tailor messages to audiences’ literacy levels, cultural orientation and communication channel preference. There are currently 2.5 billion social media users globally, and 70% of Americans now use social media to connect with one another, engage with news content and share information.

Compared to other generations, millennials are the most active on social media, with 88% of Americans ages 18 to 29 using Facebook and 75% of them having created at least one social media account. Moreover, while fewer adults use social media, those numbers are still high, with 62% of adults older than 65 using Facebook. These numbers show a significant increase from six years ago, when it was reported that only 6% of those aged 65 and older use social media.

Projections signal only continued growth, with recent data suggesting that use of digital media will increase by 18% by 2020, and some data putting use statistics at more than 5 billion people, or about two-thirds of the world’s population, by 2020.

With such growth comes increasing risk. Pekka Aula writes his article, “Social media, reputation risk and ambient publicity management” that “reputation risk, the possibility or danger of losing one’s reputation, presents a threat to organizations in many ways [including] competitiveness, local positioning, the trust and loyalty of stakeholders, media relations, the legitimacy of operations, and even the license to exist.”

According to research carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), leading European managers consider reputation risk to be the primary threat to business operations and the market value of their organizations. The growth in social media usage serves only to magnify the possibilities of these risks, expanding the spectrum of reputation risks and boosting risk dynamics.

For those new to social media and experienced users, understanding the risks of using social media as well as trends and approaches for mitigating those risks can be useful. Using experiences during a vaccine-related Twitter chat as an example, this article outlines approaches and best practices that can help inform strategies to avoid and mitigate risk in social media — whether you are an organization, a marketer or a user.

Topics such as how to anticipate and prepare for activations in social media, how to bring in supportive voices and leverage them during times of crisis, and how to limit the involvement of your brand in crises will be discussed.

Background on the Activation

On behalf of a well-known national organization working to educate the public about the importance of vaccines, research and communication firm Westat partnered with The Motherhood, a blogger network and social media marketing agency, to produce an hour-long Twitter chat. The chat was intended to share reputable information and resources about vaccines and engage parents and caregivers on the topic of vaccination for their families.

We suspected that this topic would be particularly divisive because data suggest that the anti-vaccination conversation online is strong. For instance, Jennifer Keelan, Vera Pavri-Garcia, George Tomlinson and Kumanan Wilson analyzed YouTube immunization videos and published their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). They found that 32% opposed vaccination and that these had higher ratings and more views than pro-vaccine videos.

Another YouTube analysis carried out by Keelan, Pavri-Garcia, Wilson and Ravin Balakrishnan specific to HPV immunization found that 25.3% of videos portrayed vaccination negatively. The four also analyzed MySpace blogs on HPV immunization and found that 43% were negative. Another study published in Healthcare Quarterly by Neil Seeman, Alton Ing and Carlos Rizo found that 60% of the top search results during the study period contained anti-vaccination sentiments.

Given this context, we wanted to be prepared for anything that could go wrong during the activation. As such, we prepared in numerous ways for a variety of outcomes. This preparation led to great success, despite the fact that the chat indeed saw participation from anti-vaccine advocates.


A review of success metrics shows that the Twitter chat generated a great deal of attention around the importance of vaccines. Tracking the conversation using a dedicated hashtag and comparing the level of conversation using the hashtag before and during the chat, we saw an increase of 1,176% in the number of people participating in the conversation during the hour, with the number of tweets increasing nearly 4,300%, and the impressions increasing nearly 1,500%.

Although anti-vaccination participants did appear during the chat as anticipated, of the 1,772 tweets published during the hour, only 262 shared anti-vaccination sentiments. Their message was diluted by the 1,510 tweets that came from pro-vaccine advocates — nearly six times the number of tweets as those published by anti-vaccination advocates.

Further, the top 10 highest-reaching anti-vaccine participants had a total of 44,307 followers (an average of around 4,400 followers per person). On the other hand, the top 10 pro-vaccine advocates had a combined following of 175,678 (or an average of around 17,500 followers per person), demonstrating that the caliber and influence of the pro-vaccine contributors was far greater than those in the anti-vaccination camp.

In fact, 17.2% of tweets during the chat shared negative sentiments about vaccination, but those tweets generated fewer than 3% of the overall impressions. This demonstrates that while the anti-vaccine sentiment may have felt overwhelming to the Westat-The Motherhood team, when we reviewed the data, it really represented only a small slice of the conversation.

Implications for Marketing and Public Relations Professionals

Anticipate and Prepare
In the case of the Twitter chat, we anticipated early that a chat devoted to the topic of vaccines could attract anti-vaccination trolls, or those who would join only to tweet inflammatory, misguided or off-topic messages. Therefore, Westat and The Motherhood took steps to prepare, counter the misinformation shared by such participants and defuse what could be an emotionally charged situation.

One of those steps was to create a detailed script in advance of the chat that acted as the framework for the real-time online conversation. The script included links and citations to reputable, impartial and nonpartisan sources to support the points we were making. Ultimately, this helped keep the conversation on-topic as participants joined and pulled it in different directions.

Our early planning paid off. Post-chat analysis of the activation data revealed that despite chat impressions being slightly above average and the number of tweets being on par with other Twitter chats executed by The Motherhood during the same time frame, the number of participants was 4.5 times higher than average, indicating how many people were engaged — for better or for worse.

Bring in Supportive and/or Expert Voices to Create a Safe Space
Ahead of the chat, Westat notified vaccination experts and scientists about the event, and The Motherhood identified and engaged supportive parenting influencers to join the conversation and share the positive message of vaccines.

Having a team that included both scientists as well as curated parenting influencers who supported the message and were educated ahead of time helped to keep pro-vaccination tweets in the forefront of the conversation and ensured that they got the most visibility.

Stay Out of the Fray
During the Twitter chat, the sponsoring organization only responded once to an anti-vaccination tweet, but the anti-vaccination advocates engaged with this same tweet more than 70 times. Despite this attempt to overwhelm the conversation with anti-vaccination content, the anti-vaccine tweets ultimately comprised only 3% of tweets and just 1% of overall impressions. The sponsor organization’s decision not to engage with the anti-vaccine content, on the other hand, resulted in 15% of tweets and 12% of overall impressions being on-message and ultimately achieving the aim of the chat: to communicate the benefits of family vaccination.

The message here to brands, initiatives or campaigns considering conducting an activation in social media on a topic that may be controversial is that you should not get involved in emotional arguments you can’t win. In short, do not “feed the trolls.” This only provides antagonists with a larger platform through which to amplify their message. By not engaging, you can minimize the visibility your vehicle gives to these counter messages. An alternative strategy to manage this content is to ask individual experts to engage or intervene on your behalf.


These results demonstrate that preparing and deploying a risk communication strategy in support of a potentially controversial situation or conversation can be done in a virtual setting — and can result in a successful activation.

Moreover, the recommendations we make for how to anticipate and prepare for activations in social media will help ensure that anyone thinking about activating such an event in social media on a hot-button topic has the tools to plan and deploy that event successfully. Our specific recommendations to anticipate risk by engaging supportive voices and leverage their voices rather than your own will help mediate crises as they arise.

While brands, organizations and individuals should always carefully consider their message before sharing, ultimately, it is possible to enter the online space successfully, even when some risk is involved.


About Westat

Westat is a leading research and communication organization in the United States. Since 1963, Westat has provided statistical and evaluation research as well as communication services to federal and state government agencies and other organizations in the fields of health, education, social services, transportation, housing, the environment and other subjects. For more information contact us at

About The Motherhood

In 2006, The Motherhood CEO Cooper Munroe pioneered influencer marketing when she built the country’s first influencer marketing campaign on behalf of a well-known diaper brand, and since then her team of agency experts have engaged thousands of bloggers to create powerful, needle-moving work that’s received national acclaim.

As seasoned public relations professionals, The Motherhood team specializes in developing and executing innovative influencer social media campaigns that drive results and create long-term value for brand partners. For more information, email us at

About the Author | Amelia Burke-Garcia

Amelia Burke-Garcia is Westat’s senior director of digital media and director of the Center for Digital Strategy & Research and has nearly 15 years of experience in digital, social and mobile media. She currently leads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities’ digital communication and branding work. Most recently, she was the campaign director for CDC’s national influenza vaccination campaign where she spearheaded innovative digital strategies and partner collaborations to promote flu vaccination awareness.



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