I was unsurprised by Duncan Bannatyne’s slightly overheated response to a joke on Twitter the other day, having seen similar if less litigious reactions from many senior managers at Bizzle Towers over the last few years.
I won’t re-hash the Bannatyne story, because it’s been done better elsewhere (thanks to @Charonqc for that link). But I think that it illustrates a trait that you would find in a fair few businesses at the moment – a failure to comprehend, and a lack of perspective on, social media and the Internet generally.
The company I work for generates a fair amount of employee comment on the Internet, which isn’t surprising or unusual for a business with a large headcount in an industry notorious for high staff turnover. Now and again I get asked to have a look at something that someone has posted on Facebook or whatever, partly because I’m one of the only people who’s got permission to access those sites from a work pc.
Often those requests have a tinge of panic to them: Something bad has been said! On the Internet!! WHERE EVERYBODY WILL READ IT!!!
What’s missing here is any sense of the difference between the web and the ‘real’ world, so that the reaction is the same as if a newspaper had the story, or a billboard had been erected outside the office saying ACME LIMITED IS A SHIT EMPLOYER. A lot of managers just don’t realise how restricted the audience usually is for any given Facebook group, and how ephemeral a post or a tweet is.
And always the first question is: Can we fire them? Well, you could… but then you’ll lose any control over them, and if you think the initial comment was bad you should see what they’ll say when they’re pissed off and got no reason to hold back.
The best thing, almost always, is to have a quiet word. In my experience, the most common reaction from employees is embarrassment that their ‘private’ comment (yeah, quite a lot of people don’t understand the Internet) has been seen by their employer, followed by a swift promise to delete the offending item.
This can be difficult to accept for company execs who are used to dealing with issues in a direct manner with disciplinaries and firings, but coming down hard in cases like this carries a high risk of provoking the precise thing that they think has already happened but in fact hasn’t.
Of course, sometimes we can’t fire people because they don’t work for us. And yes, I’ve been asked about the chances of bringing a defamation suit before – to which my answer is: Have you SEEN the Internet these days? To put it mildly, it’s probably not untrue to say that a lot of users are more outraged by perceived censorship than by offensive or untrue comment.
In both scenarios, taking an ‘enforcement’ approach risks giving a relatively minor issue (seen in the context of the total amount of noise out there) considerably wider publicity than it would otherwise have had.
Bannatyne is an exemplar of this problem: if he hadn’t responded to the original tweet then it’s likely that very few people would have seen it. But because he did, now a few hundred thousand people have seen it and think worse of him than they did before. Arguably, his mistake originated in a belief that because HE had seen the tweet, so had everyone else.
Naturally, there will be some comments, tweets, whatever, that are completely unacceptable or that run out of control. Those are the ones that you should take action on, but for the rest? Just calm down and let it go… Or better still, fix the issues that make people want to talk about you in that way.