Socially Made – February 2011

Throughout 2011, Make Me Social will publish Socially Made, a review of social media’s continued evolution in both influence and commentary.

The first edition of Socially Made was very well received, and in determining how to follow it up, I wanted to separate myself by not writing about what everyone else has been writing about (sorry, no Charlie Sheen commentary….yet).

This post’s theme is determining the line between what you can write about on social media when it comes to your professional life (don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a training seminar by any means).

In most circumstances, organizations and the individuals that make up them up know of the existence of social media (whether they understand its capabilities as a business tool, well, that is up for interpretation). However, while only a handful of organizations are utilizing it to connect to the public, the truth is that a large percentage of its personnel are using it personally, and the gray area comes when those worlds meet. Two recent events represent examples of how this issue has come to a head, and should raise concerns for any organization (or at least any organization that expects to hire anyone younger than 30).

The Mississippi State mens basketball team has had a difficult season, with a gamut of suspensions and internal conflicts. Adding to the barrage of problems, MSU guard Ravern Johnson posted the following on Twitter after a 14-point loss to conference foe Alabama.

“Starting to see why people Transfer you can play the minutes but not getting your talents shown because u watching someone else wit the ball the whole game shooters need to move not watch why other coaches get that do not make sense to me”

This was interpreted (rightfully so) as a direct shot at the coaching staff, which drew a flood of criticism from fans towards Johnson and teammate Ronaldo Sidney (who retweeted the post and has had problems of his own) to the point where both deleted their Twitter accounts. This incident forced head coach Rick Stansbury to ban his players from using the social networking site, stating, “In the heat of the moment, some young men just don’t understand once they put something out there for everyone to see, there is no taking it back. That’s why I’m banning the use of Twitter at this point.”

It was a newsworthy event, but Mississippi State was not the first team to have to deal with a situation like this. The Minnesota Golden Gophers basketball team is an interesting case. They have had a number of social media users, including Al Nolen (who is injured and posted about his hopes to be back playing soon); Trevor Mbakwe (who sent a Facebook message to a woman who has a restraining order against him, which resulted in jail time, and upon being released, offered a commentary on Twitter, which resulted in a suspension of his account); Rodney Williams (who has said he stopped using Twitter to avoid saying the wrong thing); and Royce White (announced his transfer via a multi-channel, social media campaign). All of this activity caused head coach Tubby Smith to have to address this issue with his team.

These examples, and others like it, have necessitated other basketball coaches to go on record on their opinions of players using social media, including Notre Dame’s Mike Brey (who doesn’t let his players use Twitter during the season, but hasn’t banned Facebook) and his Big East colleague Jim Boeheim (who refuses to police the medium and instead relies on the players to make sound decisions when they are online). This problem isn’t specific to basketball. Nearly every college and professional sports teams has individuals using social media to report their thoughts as a way to get their thoughts out unfiltered. However, the controversy arises when these comments conflict with that of the organization.

Media relations and sports information staffs exist for a reason. They are there to put everything in the most positive – but also most accurate – light from the team perspective. When individual team members circumvent that process, journalists and the public may love it, but there are other considerations. For example, an 18 year old making a statement in the heat of the moment that they would like to retract later will have a difficult time walking something back, especially if it is controversial.

Make Me Social doesn’t recommend restricting social media use, but education is key. Head coaches and their staffs are also teachers, and when they aren’t covering X’s and O’s, these teachers should be covering ways that their students can represent themselves, their teammates and their organization better.

A more mainstream example is the case of Natalie Munroe, the Pennsylvania teacher who used her blog to comment on her students and colleagues, which led to her suspension. This story has received national attention, not just for the issue, but Ms. Munroe’s insistence that she is in the right (when others would have simply apologized and taken the punishment).

Her defense includes writing under an assumed name (although, whether “Natalie M” is a cryptic enough pseudonym is up for debate. Plus, she did have a photograph of herself on her page); the fact that she didn’t cite any student’s name or even the school that employed her; that she had been blogging for over a year – primarily for family and friends – and of the 84 posts, 60 of them had absolutely nothing to do with school or work; and that the post that got her suspended was over a year old.

However, her shock about the ramifications her blog has caused is a bit disingenuous because, in an ironic twist, she had told her students about being cautious when posting on the Internet because, “it could get to the wrong people.” It should be noted that she also wrote positive things about her students and employer, but those have gone unnoticed (I hope it isn’t because she is expected to do that, and therefore it isn’t news).

I am not going to debate the accuracy of her opinions on her students (but will say that if I spent five days a week with people over nine months, I would claim to know them pretty well). Did she exercise bad judgment? Yes. I mean, was she expecting to get a comedy special out of this rant? The question remains though, if this was published via a letter to her local paper or in an interview (both which would have been fact-checked), would she have been suspended? What about sharing these thoughts with friend at a coffee shop and a parent overheard? Where does Natalie Munroe the teacher end and Natalie Munroe, the 30-year old women that has problems like everyone else begin?

I have worked in communications my entire career, so the process of thinking, rethinking, then re-rethinking all public statements is inherent in me, especially when representing clients. As social media has become a greater part of my personal life, I have, by default, found myself taking my professional training into my personal communications. However, not all people are of the same thinking, and because social media exists as a rapid response to life, it has the potential to generate unique perspectives. The solution is simple though. Many organizations provide media training to their employees, so why not provide social media training that includes everything from how to frame your point to the type of people using different platforms? This effort would at least plant the seed in people that there can be professional repercussions to your personal statements, even if you think no one else is listening.

Social media is the online equivalent of a free megaphone: It gives you a more prevalent voice. But that voice doesn’t get to come at a cost to others. The internet is written in ink, not pencil, so before you publish something, I ask you to consider this: The Library of Congress announced last year it plans to archive every tweet sent via Twitter since its inception in March 2006. Are you prepared to have what you are writing be read 5, 10, 15 years from now? If so, I look forward to reading it.

______________________________________________________________

Greg Morgan is Communications and Content Director for Make Me Social, a social media agency that develops customized social media strategies for businesses. With experience in industries ranging from sports to state government, Greg focuses in crafting messages for all types of clients in an effort to perfect what he calls “versatile communications.” Born and raised in West Hartford, Connecticut, he remains a loyal UConn Husky fan, despite now residing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

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