The Slippery Slope Of Social Media Accountability

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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.

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