Last week, CNN’s Roland Martin became the latest high-profile figure to get burned by a tweet. “If a dude at your Super Bowl party is hyped about David Beckham’s H&M underwear ad,” he wrote after seeing a commercial featuring the soccer star in his tighty-whiteys, “smack the ish out of him!”
The complaints began rolling in immediately — via social media, of course. The gay rights group GLAAD charged that the tweet was homophobic. Martin countered that he was merely mocking soccer. Whatever the motivation, the comment sparked outrage and CNN responded by suspending the on-air analyst.
With more than 100,000 followers, Martin’s 140-character commentaries are under far greater scrutiny than most of ours, but the collision of social media and the workplace is an issue that affects more than just those in the spotlight.
These days, most successful companies are turning to social networks to engage with the public. As Anthony DeRosa, Reuters’ social-media editor, told CNN, “Social media now is not an option, it’s a necessity.”
But this interaction comes with serious risks for both the companies and their employees. Remember the Kenneth Cole debacle, when a tweet from the fashion company’s main account, signed off by “KC” himself, joked that pro-liberty protesters in Egypt were rioting because Kenneth Cole’s spring collection was available online? The desire of marketers to insert their brands into trending conversations on social networks (in this case, co-opting the #Cairo hashtag on Twitter) can lead to embarrassing PR messes.
And there are head-slapping examples of people who believe they’re tweeting from a personal account, only to realize, once it’s too late, that the comment went out via a corporate handle. CNN points to this stellar example: “I find it ironic that that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f—ing drive.” Not a smart move for a contractor working for Chrysler, but particularly gnarly when accidentally tweeted from the official Chrysler account.
But what if that Detroit dis had come from the tweeter’s personal account? Would it still have been acceptable for Chrysler to terminate the employee?
As their adventures in social media continue, major corporations are putting more detailed policies in place, both to help employees navigate potential minefields and to protect themselves when they want to fire someone for setting off a social-media bomb.
The obvious question is, where do we draw the line? Where does free speech come into play? What speech is off-limits? They’re not simple questions to answer. But these tools aren’t going anywhere, and neither are the concerns they raise.