THE BLOG
11/03/2013 05:56 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Gulliver's Twitter

As more and more brands are forced to navigate the stormy seas of online and social communication, many suddenly and without warning find themselves shipwrecked on digital Lilliput.

In an instant, brands can be pinned down by digital Lilliputians--the irrational bullies, brats and crybabies who think they need nothing more than a smart phone and a hashtag to bash brands into giving them special service, treatment or, of course, free stuff.

And it is not just happening on brands' digital or social platforms. Bully consumers are more than willing to bring the digital and social to the brand.

It is as if every public touch point where a brand can be reached--from brick-and-mortar retail to social media page--is a potential piñata that will rain candy down on whoever is actually shameless enough to hit it as hard and as publicly as they can.

Who could forget this passionate, iPhone-wielding Dunkin' Donuts enthusiast who thought nothing of subjecting fellow human beings to more than 8 minutes of deranged racist idiocy to get a free Coolatta? "Just to warn you, this is all being under video surveillance! [sic] This is all going to be posted on Facebook!"

Of course it is.

I mean, what could possibly go wrong? Other than being publicly identified by name and labeled the worst person in the world on dozens of websites, with the cell phone footage that you yourself published presented as compelling evidence in a just-desserts online kangaroo court; or being sued for defamation and invasion of privacy by the employee you harassed and harangued in a series of angry tweets for--imagine this--doing her job

Cranks and crackpots are nothing new. But in 2008, when the explosive rise of the smart phone coincided with the heights of the global financial crisis, the weight and amplification of the consumer's voice was taken to thundering, unprecedented extremes. At a time when businesses were reeling from the worst economy since the Great Depression, one comment, tweet or status update had them running scared.

Thank God that's over. Or at least waning.

It is not that those types of consumers have recognized that it is totally inappropriate to have a public digital meltdown because your fast food didn't come quite fast enough or you had to actually stand in a line somewhere. Anybody that was so inclined is still so very inclined--and more able than ever to take their crazy public.

It's just that the rest of us have had enough, and we are willing to tell them--as their parents, partners and friends should have--to sit down and shut up. You live by the tweet, you die by the tweet.

Brands can take considerable comfort in the fact that when they are publicly and unfairly attacked by irrational loudmouths with entitlement issues, there will often be just as many consumers ready to come to their defense--or at least descend on the jerk in question like a pack of wild, sarcastic dogs.

It's the brands advocates who should do the admonishing, though. Brands must always and without exception avoid direct public confrontations with individuals.

In order to galvanize the kind of consumer response that neutralizes the toxicity of rants and attacks, brands must speak with courtesy and respect--no matter how they are treated. Nothing turns a brand from attacked to attacker faster than focusing the force of their power and platform against a single individual.

If 18-year-old Abid Adar can keep his composure in the face of such ugliness--for $8 an hour, no less--there is no reason why brands and their social media executives can't do the same. That young man behind the counter at the Dunkin' Donuts is an incredible example of how to be cool under any circumstance--but so is Dunkin' Donuts itself.

As the story went viral, Dunkin' Donuts refrained from commenting on the customer. Instead, the company posted this tweet: "Our franchisee will b recognizing the employees 4 their efforts.They handled the difficult situation w/ grace and patience." Adar was then privately recognized by the company at an internal event.

Brands take note: That's how to turn this kind of unexpected ugliness into an opportunity to showcase your brand standards and corporate values. Unfortunately, you may need it.

As more of the marketing function is digitized, some consumers will always exploit their access and amplification to create needless trouble for the companies unfortunate enough to cross their paths. But no matter how hard, brands must always remember that whenever they sink to that level, they lose. Be bigger. Nobody likes being a punching bag, but with so many ways to publicly take the high road, there is no reason why brands today have to take it--like Gulliver--lying down.