The Slippery Slope Of Social Media Accountability

Apologies for being the gazillionth person to raise the subject of the tweets from the New Media Strategies employee and Gilbert Gottfried that got those two individuals in trouble, and ultimately, fired from their positions.

But I think that the accounts of these stories, and the opinions offered in them (as well as in the comments associated with them) are avoiding an important question that’s being left unanswered: Where’s the line?

I have no idea what Gilbert Gottfried actually tweeted, but I am inclined to believe that joking about the situation is Japan is not just bad taste, but “wrong.” If I were running Aflac, I think I would have fired him as well.

The New Media Strategies example doesn’t seem to me to be on the same scale as the Gottfried tweets. In fact, to be honest, I’m not sure I really know which of these was the more heinous offense: Cursing in a tweet, or insulting the citizens of the clients’ home city? Maybe it was the combination. And the connection between the topic of the tweet and the product sold by the client.

Many of the media stories about these situations stress the need for social media “accountability.” The New York Times’ article When the Marketing Reach of Social Media Backfires is typical. I have absolutely no issue with this article or viewpoint. I agree with pretty much everything said or implied by the article and the folks quoted in it.

But again, I have to come back and ask: Where’s the line?

For example, here’s a February 6th tweet from Bill Maher:

“Man, the ad agencies just punted this year on clever – ah, fuck it, dogs at a party serving beer, its just the Super Bowl”

Hmm. Let’s see, here. We’ve got the compulsory curse. And then there’s the insult — in this case, of ad agencies.

Should this be a fire-able offense? We have the same “vulgarity” (the New York Times’ word) being used. And there’s the condemnation of a whole group of people. Maybe since HBO doesn’t sell advertising, it’s OK for Maher to insult ad agencies. Or maybe it’s OK to insult/criticize ad agencies because they’re just annoying. OOPS! Look what I just said! I hope I don’t get fired for that slip of the social media tongue.

Let me be clear: I am not advocating that Bill Maher be fired. Yes, I don’t like him, and I hardly ever agree with anything he says, but I support his right to say whatever he wants. All of that is moot. I’m simply using something he said to point out the inconsistencies and gray area in this “social media accountability” situation.

Should people who re-tweeted Gottfried’s or the New Media Strategies’ tweets be fired from their jobs as well?

One natural reaction to this whole situation is to say “we need a policy.” In fact, in the NY Times article, Craig Macdonald, chief marketing officer at Covario in San Diego, an agency for search advertising and social media advertising, is quoted as saying:

“Offer employees some sort of certification course and tell them, ‘We’ll tolerate some negativity and dumb stuff, and we’ll course-correct as we go along.’ Then monitor what they say, course correct — and do better next time.”

I really like this suggestion, especially because it reflects some degree of tolerance for error. I am willing to bet, however, that other firms will miss that nuance, and institute policies that aren’t as forgiving (as New Media Strategies would appear to be, by firing the employee who tweeted the offending tweet).

But even a “tolerance for error” isn’t a solution. There will always be some statements that some people will find more offensive than others and claim that there should be no tolerance for those statements. And I actually agree with them, even though I support Macdonald’s call for tolerance.

All in all, not an easy subject to deal, hence, the slippery slope of social media accountability.

9 thoughts on “The Slippery Slope Of Social Media Accountability

  1. I wonder when people will stop making such a big deal about these things because it was twitter. The story is that he said something stupid. He could have said it on Conan, sent it via email or even left it as a blog comment.

    The default response from agency types is that we need more training and policies. I don’t buy that. Everyone has an internet usage policy. There is no amount of training that would have stopped Gilbert from making a fool of himself.

    IMHO, this isn’t the first and won’t be he last of these stories since mass media and Internet (and of course social media) are not going away and there is no policy that can stop people from saying dumb things.

  2. Frank: Thanks for pointing this out. Absolutely right. So what if the comment was on Twitter. What if it was at a conference? Would that make a difference? The issue is NOT the “channel” in which the stupidity occurs. Not only do agencies (and other firms) have Internet policies, many have policies for what to and what not to say to the media. It’s not a social media accountability policy that’s needed, but a stupidity policy.

  3. Personally, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re being a jackass on your own time, as long as it’s not about your employer, it’s none of your employer’s business. (Curiously enough, that is not my employer’s policy.)

    And I say this as someone who almost got in serious trouble because of my blog waaaay back in 2001. Protip: complaining about annoying co-workers AND about goofing off at work on a publicly accessible blog is a bad idea. Just glad I learned that back at the dawn of blogging, and from a really thoughtful/forgiving boss.

  4. Elaine: What is the concept “your own time” you speak about? Sounds interesting. Would love to learn more about it. More seriously, though, there isn’t a clear dichotomy here either. Assume that, “on your own time and your own personal blog” you insult or offend a certain religious group. If your job involves dealing with members of that religious group on a frequent basis, then it’s possible that members of that religious group will refuse to do business with you, and by extension, your employer.

    So yes, I would agree that would you do on your own time is none of your employer’s business. But if what you do do on your own time has a materially negative on your employer’s business, then it IS your employer’s “business.”

  5. My take: Everyone involved missed a golden opportunity to turn a mistake and the attention it garnered into something fun, awesome, and positive.

    Things you could do to play off the attention and turn this thing on its head without firing anybody:

    #1 Setup the silly social media offender (or his CEO or both) in a dunk booth in downtown Detroit. Charge $ to have a chance to dunk him. Send all the money to a local charity. (Or mother’s against drunk driving…or something like that) (You’d get tons of “real” media coverage on this.)

    #2 Pull in Eminem, your Detroit/Crystal golden boy and release a quick video or audio short slamming this tweet….or heck…maybe even confirming what it said…

    #3 Run a “worst driver in Detroit” or “best driver in Detroit” campaign where you can submit yourself or friends. Offset with stats about where Detroit ranks in “Worst driving cities”….

    And that’s just a start….

    The point is that firing people is 1) boring and 2) doesn’t do anything with all the attention that has just been gifted to you.

    I guess I just expect more from “creatives” and “social media pr gurus” :/

  6. Chrysler should thank Scott Bartosiewicz (the offending kid at New Media Strategies) for putting their lame Twitter account in the news. For a giant consumer brand, they’ve got a piddling 8500 followers (not that I put much stake in quantity of followers, but still…). Even though Chrysler tried to go all Detroit tough with their Super Bowl ad, their tweets are dry anemic corporate shilling. Yawn. Scott B’s F-bomb nailed the Eminem/raw Detroit brand that Chrysler was trying to fake. Or has no Chrysler exec ever listened to an Eminem album? I think Scott B should have been wristslapped, but they should have made a joke about it. Seriously, who in Detroit was offended?

  7. Freddy: Thanks for bringing this up. Let me tell you something else that occurred to me after I published this: Imagine if the person who tweeted the offending tweet wasn’t an employee of the ad agency, but a Chrysler employee, and not just that, but a Union member. Do you think that person would have been fired? Not a chance. Here’s another thing about this to think about: A while back, Chrysler management ran the company into the ground, and had to get bailed out by the US government. Did any Chrysler execs lose their job for running the company into (or near) bankruptcy? Nope. But we should fire some guy for dropping an F-bomb and his not particularly offensive comment amount driving. Hey Chrysler (like they’re listening to me): Tell NMS to reinstate Scott B.

  8. I think this is simpler than it sounds. If you say something in public, to a news reporter, to twitter, they are all the same. If you say something that is wrong as defined by your employer hen so be it. This is not a social media issue and I am surprised you see it that way.

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