When social media shaming goes wrong

By Chris Lee

Another avoidable, high-profile social media calamity has claimed the jobs of two computer programmers in the United States, prompting disbelief from social media professionals and serving up a timely reminder of the consequences of our online actions.

Adria Richards, a computer programmer attending the Python (PyCon) programming conference in California this March took exception to a joke of an allegedly “sexual” nature from the seat behind, prompting her to tweet a picture of the men involved. PyCon organisers ejected those men and Richards then blogged about her experience.

The full story is explained in this TechCrunch post, but Playhaven, the start-up employer of the man alleged to make the initial comment, sacked him in response. After a wave of retribution against the Richards – a lot of it unsavoury – and a denial-of-service attack on her employer SendGrid, the company also relieved her of her position, explaining its actions in this post.

So what lessons does the sorry PyCon episode provide for companies and individuals on social media?

A step too far

Lazar Dzamic, planning director of creative agency Kitcatt Nohr Digitas believes that the original “public shaming” was a step too far as it confuses what is private and what is public. This in turn for Dzamic is one of the consequences of how social media has changed our perception of privacy.

“[Social media] blurred the walls between these two spheres in our lives. Out of this confusion here rises a raft of phenomena, of which this story is just the latest example,” he told NMK. “Posting on Facebook is the same as going on TV and making a statement; which means that, ultimately, we are liable for it. Not to mention that we are using other people’s faces without their permission, which is a very basic breach of privacy rules, social media or not. Essentially, Adria made a bad judgment. The problem is that this is not the end to this phenomenon. Wait until Google Glasses come about: we will witness a genuine privacy breach revolution.”

Public-Private partnership

For Gary Andrews, Digital Campaigns and Communities Manager at PR agency Ruder Finn UK, the PyCon incident serves as a reminder that any public activity on social media as an employee can be linked back to your work.

“This isn’t to say that companies should produce restrictive social media guidelines – by and large social media works better when employees are allowed to develop their own personality and style online,” he commented. “But it never hurts to constantly revise your social media guidelines and also regularly remind employees of the dangers – as well as the opportunities – of social media.”

Even experienced social practitioners can make mistakes online, Andrews added, the key to minimising the damage from a reputation perspective is successful management behind the scenes.

Paul Allen of consultancy Rise PR agreed, calling on social media users to exercise common sense. “The temptation to ‘call out’ perceived bad behaviour can be great but there are times – such as this one – when having a direct, offline conversation is preferable,” he said.

Brands must define policies

The power, speed and permanence of social media is still frequently underestimated and trends such as public shaming serve to remind us of the pressing need for businesses to take a definitive stance on social media, regardless of whether they choose to engage as part of an external communications strategy or not, according to Sarah Todd, CEO of consultancy G2 Joshua.

“Employees have always been ambassadors of the companies and brands they work for and with a new range of media available to them, it has never been more important to manage this area of business strategy,” she told NMK. “Social media can be a great way to build employee morale…but equally, in a space that often lacks rules or boundaries, policies need to be clearly defined. More often than not, most social crises could be avoided through better planning and education as to the potential pitfalls.”

Accentuate the positive

Charlie Wells, strategy director and head of social at interactive marketing agency SapientNitro, concluded that public shaming forms only a tiny minority of what happens on the Social Web and should not overshadow the many benefits of social media.

A temper tantrum on social can go global. Don’t underestimate Schadenfreude, but you will feel proportionally silly afterwards,” he commented. “I always feel a little bit dirty from reading such trending stories. No-one comes out better off from public shaming. Imagine if we focused this power on highlighting heroes instead.”

One thought on “When social media shaming goes wrong

  1. Today, our lives play out across multiple channels and in various ways. With this in mind, we have a responsibility to represent ourselves as we wish to be seen, across all touch points. This is as relevant for the individual as it is for a brand.

    If I’m nice as pie to a colleague in the flesh, but then choose to slander him on a social platform, then I must understand the reaction is likely to be as similar as if I stood on a box outside the office with a loud hailer and announced the very same update. It’s all public forum and demeanour should always reflect this.

    For a brand, there are good and bad ways of handling public comment and backlash. Audiences are savvy and brand comms need to adhere to a common sense approach to dealing with consumer comment and / or complaint. All too often we see brands running for the hills by closing down the ability to remark or worse still, deleting consumer comment from existence. Much better that an organisation allows its community to ‘self-police’, real people calling out the idiots that are unsure on how to behave or converse in a public place. You can of course attempt to hide behind your screen and fill platforms with your often terribly typed rhetoric. But sometimes this simply doesn’t work out.

    Ultimately, consumers and brands alike are obliged to reflect their guiding principles within their communications irrespective of the medium within which they travel. All the more so, when the whole world is watching.



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