Kerry O’Grady, a clinical assistant professor of public relations and corporate communication, knew something was very wrong one day when she started receiving hateful messages from strangers on her social media profiles. While on her way to teach a MS in public relations and corporate communication course, she quickly did a Google search and found a story about how a Secret Service agent with the same name had posted a Facebook message expressing support for Hillary Clinton and saying she would not take a bullet for then-candidate Donald Trump. The story became viral, and so did the anger towards the agent. Given that the agent and Kerry both spelled their names the same way, Professor O’Grady, who had public social media profiles, quickly was on the receiving end of hundreds of hateful messages attacking her, her family, and her integrity.
“I’m getting all of these hateful messages,” said O’Grady, “and they started turning from, ‘You should be fired,’ to more along the lines of, ‘You’re completely unpatriotic and you don’t deserve your position,’ and started getting kind of nasty.”
She brought up the topic in the class she was teaching, ironically “Critical Business Skills for Corporate Communication.” “My first thought was to make my students feel comfortable,” explained O’Grady. “I told them there was a mistake and that I didn’t do anything wrong to yield this sort of response.”
After class, O’Grady used some of the principles she teaches and went on the offensive. She posted an explanatory post on Facebook to her inner circle that they could then circulate. She replied to her Twitter trolls, one by one, addressing them individually to disarm them, and created a hashtag campaign, #NotSecretServiceKerry, to spread word about the mistake. She worked through the night, trying to clean up the mess. While she did receive two apologies, many continued to attack her on social media despite knowing they were going after the wrong person.
“Social media, I think, has always been a place to express ideas and opinions. I think now it’s not about ideas and opinions, but it’s about, ‘How fast can I relay my anger? How can I express and use this as an outlet for my feelings?’ And that’s a very dangerous place to be.”
O’Grady recently described the whole harrowing experience as well as her take on what social media landscape looks like today on a recent episode of ABC News’ “Uncomfortable” podcast.