Look Before You Tweet: Crossed Signals Between Staff and Employers


We've all heard stories of how new technologies have backfired on people in the workplace, the home and the classroom -- how employees, students, spouses and others have been tripped up by their own Facebook or Twitter entries. Social networking and other technologies may have revolutionized how we communicate, but they're also posing new pitfalls and ethical questions for companies -- especially within the media industry.

The latest high-profile example is Octavia Nasr. CNN's Middle East affairs senior editor was fired recently after publishing a comment on Twitter expressing admiration for a recently deceased and very controversial cleric in Lebanon. (Disclosure: The author of this piece is a former CNN employee.)

Conflicting Urges Over Twitter

Before her dismissal, Nasr tried to clarify her statement, saying the reaction to her Tweet "provides a good lesson on why 140 characters should not be used to comment on controversial or sensitive issues, especially those dealing with the Middle East."

Twitter's 140-character format is "for making Henny Youngman-like one-liners," says blogger Chez Pazienza. "That's what it's there for; you don't really try to communicate any genuine emotion via Twitter. It's a ridiculous conceit to do that."

But Pazienza, a former CNN producer, points out the network encourages its on-air talent to Tweet. "They have to push social networking," he says. "And what they do is [say]: 'Go on there, go, we trust your judgment.' But then they turn around and say, 'You know what? She didn't use her best judgment on this, and it made us look bad.' And that's just dumb."

Employers "Can't Keep Up Anymore"

Several years ago, Pazienza was forced out of CNN after company executives discovered his blog, deusexmalcontent.com -- a website he started during a medical leave from the company. "I said...it's a hobby, it's something I do on the side," he remembers. "I'm not paid for it: I'm not out identifying myself as a CNN employee."

But Pazienza's bosses argued his sometimes controversial blog entries might reflect badly on the network. "I said, 'No, I don't think so, because quite frankly that's my own thing, and I don't tell people where I work, and I don't think you should have control over every single facet of my life simply because you give me a paycheck.'"

Pazienza says it's naive and/or disingenuous for organizations to presume their employees aren't using Facebook, Twitter and other social networking. "The technology has out-advanced them, and that's the problem," he says. "It's at the point now where they can't keep up anymore. It's wrong now to expect that you're going to find people who have not left a digital footprint that includes everything from embarrassing, compromising photos to political and social opinions...especially the kids coming up through the ranks now."

Part of the problem is that many corporate cultures have not yet caught up with how people use the Web -- and how it's redefining communications. "We have taken the level of publishing, what was a once-expensive process, and made it inexpensive," says Shaun Schafer, a professor at the Metropolitan State College of Denver's journalism department.

He adds: "I look at the people we have coming out right now as journalists, especially our public relations grads. If they put social networking or social media down on their list of skills, they're already a leg up on where they're going next. It certainly is changing the approach in how we think news is getting out."

Social Media Needs to Be More Than PR

Some companies have strict policies on their employees' use of the Internet and social networking. But Schafer notes there are ways around such restrictions. "A lot of people in corporate positions...might have a Facebook page that's for anybody who wants to connect," he says. "But then they have another one that's just for friends, and you may not know they have this second page. I think that's probably shrewd and much more reasonable."

As companies jump on the social media bandwagon, some are discovering their online audiences expect more than just public relations. "The very nature of....all of these social networking sites, these outlets, is that you're encouraged to speak your mind, to voice your opinion, to be heard," says Pazienza.

"[If] you go on Twitter and Facebook and you say nothing, then you look like an idiot; then you look like an old person trying to co-opt modern-day technology and you look like a fool doing it," notes Pazienza. "You only follow somebody because they're going to either have useful information, or they're going to say something once in a while that gets your attention."

That personalized usage of mass media has also dramatically changed the media industry itself. "Look at how radio has become so fractured," says Schafer. "There was a time not too long ago that anybody you stopped could probably have told you 10 songs in the Top 40. I don't know if I even know one song in the top 40 at this point. I'm still consuming radio, probably at about the same amount that I always have, but there's somebody out there to serve my [specific] interests so I'm not really looking for that common ground, and I'm probably not alone in that."

Forcing Transparency

Social networking and the Internet are forcing organizations to become more transparent, as more information from a variety of sources becomes available to anyone at any time. And that transparency, Pazienza says, extends to employees.

"People can now see the clock ticking," he says. "They can see the inner workings. And trying to hide and pretend that there are just machines back there who don't have opinions, it's completely unfeasible."