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Rasmussen (2018) Teaching Trolling: Management and Strategy, Journal of Public Relations Education, Volume 4, Issue 2, 107-114
Public Relations Education
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
Volume 4, Issue 2, Fall 2018
A publication of the Public Relations Division of AEJMC
Table of Contents
21-50 What do Employers Want? What Should Faculty Teach? A
Content Analysis of Entry-Level Employment Ads in Public
Brigitta R. Brunner, Kim Zarkin, & Bradford L. Yates
51-86 Teaching Digital and Social Media Analytics: Exploring Best
PRD GIFT Winners from AEJMC 2018
87-98 Building a Social Learning Flock: Using Twitter Chats to
Enhance Experiential Learning Across Universities
Amanda J. Weed, Karen Freberg, Emily S. Kinsky,
& Amber L. Hutchins
99-106 Diagnosing Health Campaigns: A Campaign Evaluation
Laura E. Willis
Teaching Briefs (continued)
PRD GIFT Winners from AEJMC 2018
107-114 Teaching Trolling: Management and Strategy
115-122 Sparking Creativity Through Purpose-Driven Storytelling
123-127 Looking in to see out: An Introspective Approach to Teaching
Ethics in PR
Regina Luttrell & Jamie Ward
128-133 Social Media Campaigns: Strategies for Public Relations and
Matthew J. Kushin
134-145 Meltwater Media Intelligence Software
Matthew J. Kushin
PRD GIFT Winner AEJMC 2018
Teaching Trolling: Management and Strategy
Leslie Rasmussen, Xavier University
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
Journal of Public Relations Education
2018, Vol. 4, No. 2, 107-114
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
Student Learning Goals
Students were able to accomplish the following outcomes:
• Understand three theories used in public relations and
communication (social capital theory, network theory, contingency
• Assess complex cases by supporting arguments with each theory
• Use theory to build a strategy for strategic trolling.
Connection to Theory/Practice
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 Research, 9(1), 31-63.
Vol. 4(2), 2018 Journal of Public Relations Education 109
Feldman, B. (2016, July 27). The dark internet humor of Harambe
jokes. New York Magazine. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/
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/
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/
Rao, V. (2016, September 6). How Harambe became the perfect meme.
The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/
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.
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
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.
Vol. 4(2), 2018 Journal of Public Relations Education 111
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
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
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
In a brief paragraph, describe the project. Hit the overarching theme and
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(s) and secondary audience(s)
• Demographic information
• Psychographic information
• Brand character(s)
Vol. 4(2), 2018 Journal of Public Relations Education 113
In one sentence, briefly describe the overarching goal.
Develop appropriate communication objectives that adhere to the SMART
In a brief paragraph, describe the brand voice for the project. List three
key words to describe the tone of the content.
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
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.
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.
Editorial Record: Submitted to AEJMC-PRD GIFT Competition by February 5, 2018. A
blind copy was peer reviewed by the PRD Teaching Committee, led by Chair Katie Place,
and selected as a Top GIFT. First published online on August 17, 2018.