First Amendment and Social Media Don’t Mix

First Amendment and Social Media Don't MixWe feel it in our bones.  Free speech is a cornerstone of our democracy, and the First Amendment guides many of our core beliefs.  It shapes how we think as Americans and how we view ourselves compared to the rest of the world.  But guess what?  The First Amendment and social media don’t mix.

Yes, you can say practically anything online, often without legal consequence, but the First Amendment won’t protect you from losing your job, your livelihood or your reputation – and sometimes you lose all three.

Earlier this week, Hayley Geftman-Gold, a vice president and attorney for CBS, wrote on her Facebook page that she was not sympathetic to victims of the Las Vegas shooting because, she claimed, most country music fans are Republican.  She was quickly fired.

Geftman-Gold wrote: “If they wouldn’t do anything when children were murdered I have no hope that Repugs will ever do the right thing. I’m actually not even sympathetic bc country music fans often are Republican gun toters.”

Nothing illegal about her comments.  Her argument is insensitive and idiotic but well within her right to free expression as an American.  Yet even a law license and a thorough understanding of the First Amendment didn’t help her keep her job.

Last year, United Airlines Pilot Michael Folk was suspended after tweeting that Hillary Clinton should be hanged for treason.  Folk, who also serves in the West Virginia House of Delegates, let his political leanings, and some despicable word choices, directly impact his income.  Again, he has every right to say it, but his employer didn’t, and shouldn’t, allow it.

Also last year, a Miami man went on an epic rant about the election in a local coffee shop.  His disparaging words were captured on video and posted online, turning him into a viral sensation.  The self-employed man lost clients almost immediately and is still rebuilding his tattered reputation. Did he say stuff that was offensive?  Yes.  Illegal or slanderous or defamatory?  No.  Yet severe punishment was meted out by the marketplace.

Careful what you say

Though I feel like I have said this a million times, I will repeat that we have to be careful with what we say online and realize that every thought that pops into our head does not deserve to be a Facebook post or a tweet.  I can’t defend the indefensible examples listed above, but many online problems arise from shoddy habits, poor word choices, failed attempts at humor, and even auto-correct.  Exercise some extra care and you are much less likely to have a problem.

Careful where you say it

The average American can be caught on a surveillance camera 75 times per day.  You are being watched in the bank, the grocery store and when you are pumping gas – and a bunch of other times each day.  And when you erupt in the local bakery about the current price of scones, there are probably a dozen other confection lovers standing at the ready with cell phone cameras to film your blow up.  We must be vigilant about our behavior because it is incredibly easy for all of us to be captured digitally and quickly publicized online.

Monitor yourself

Do me a solid and type your name into Google, right now.  Is there anything on the first two to three pages that you don’t like?  Is there anything coming up that will negatively impact your business?  You won’t know unless you check.  If you do business online, then you should be monitoring your online results continuously.  It may be as simple as setting up a Google alert, but there are many efficient and cost-effective options available if you require something more robust.  As an individual, you need not check your online results every day or even every week, but you should give yourself a Google check a few times per month.

If you find something negative online, be prepared to act.  If an online crowd is forming over something you posted, a simple fix might be to engage, explain yourself, apologize or even delete it.  If a situation is more dynamic, you might need some professional help.  I’m always available to answer questions, so please feel free to reach out.

–John

Comments

  1. Found this article very interesting. Thank You.

  2. John, Thank you. Excellent observations. In the same vein, I’ve been puzzled at the PR community’s silence regarding the anthem protests. While I can see both sides of the equation, and am not making a declaration either way, I feel it’s important to discuss the NFL situation from a PR standpoint.

    When you go against your written and implied contract with your employer, and publicly make customers call into question not only your own inflated salaries, but also the excessive taxes used to subsidize stadiums and overblown profits, you’ve blown it.

    Beyond all the political conversations pro and con for the anthem protests, there’s the matter of calling attention to the underbelly of a business. “So wait, Louisiana has a contract to give the Saints owners $392 MILLION dollars? In a state where they struggle to keep those darn levies safe? And the US govt helped pay for all the repair after Katrina?” These are some of the comments I’ve heard.

    Also – it matters not a whit if the ‘general public’ agrees with something the players do if the actual *Paying Customers* make NFL-ending decisions based upon those actions. Always pay attention to your customers. Remember the country reeled when it discovered the NFL was considered a “not for profit” organization. Note how quickly that changed when the public found out.

    The market does have a way of taking care of hubris. Because the protests have been seen by the Paying Public (as opposed to the media and the Hollywood elites) as an attack on an American Tradition, the NFL may not recover. Or, the players may see salaries cut to size. Or, (my personal best case scenario) the players will be encouraged to put their feet where their mouths are and go into the inner cities to help increase literacy, entrepreneurialism, hope and a positive future.

    Sometimes businesses need to be slapped upside the head and reminded from whence cometh their meal tickets. Sometimes businesses wake up and make the necessary shift in policy and culture to recover. Whether you are a news station or a sports team, recovery from disaster is possible. You just need to recognize the disaster, act in a way that gets you back to your original mission and vision, and listen to your customers.

    Too many people who have never owned their own businesses forget that Business is not a Democracy. While there are generally accepted rules of engagement and laws regarding employment and employment contracts, actions going against the well-being of the business are not covered under the Constitution of the United States. Attorneys will always go first to the contract. Customers will always respond with their pocketbooks. Human Behavior 101…

    John, perhaps now would be the time to offer your services to the NFL and its teams! Go get’em!

    • Thanks, Beth. The NFL / flag / kneel situation is an interesting one and I have given it considerable thought — even started drafting a post about it. However, I begged off because 1) I don’t feel as though I know enough or understand it well enough to add anything meaningful to the conversation. 2) It’s turned very muddy and confusing, so I’m waiting for the waters to clear a bit. That being said, the dynamic is, well, dynamic. Pro sports teams are not like typical business. Yes, the players are employees but they are also the product. Again, I know PR but this issue goes way beyond it. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

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