Friday, December 14, 2012

A Messy Situation For Social Media & Media Personalities

Social media can be a great tool -- getting the word out about something quickly and, if it's "breaking" in nature, it can be a great tool for news agencies and organizations.

Regardless of your thoughts on Facebook, twitter, and the various realms of social media out there, it is an ever-changing and at times challenging minefield of sorts, full of pitfalls as we have seen many a personality screw up over social media.  Whether it be "Tiger Blood" or allowing your fiance to post pictures on your twitter feed, the potential for stupid moments exists...whether it is merely an attention getting ploy or a moment of irrational exuberance.

But what happens when someone replies with tact to a question posed on the station's Facebook page that's directed to them about one of their characteristics and then eventually is dismissed from the job?

Rhonda Lee, a meteorologist in Shreveport, Louisiana, was recently fired for doing that.  Lee responded to a question about her hair that was posted on KTBS' Facebook page:

Question: the black lady that does the news is a very nice lady.the only thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair. im not sure if she is a cancer patient. but still its not something myself that i think looks good on tv. what about letting someone a male have waist long hair do the news.what about that (cq).

Lee's Response: Hello Emmitt--I am the ‘black lady’ to which you are referring. I’m sorry you don’t like my ethnic hair. And no I don’t have cancer. I’m a non-smoking, 5’3, 121 lbs, 25 mile a week running, 37.5 year old woman, and I’m in perfectly healthy physical condition.

I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair. For your edification: traditionally our hair doesn’t grow downward. It grows upward. Many Black women use strong straightening agents in order to achieve a more European grade of hair and that is their choice. However in my case I don’t find it necessary. I’m very proud of who I am and the standard of beauty I display. Women come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and levels of beauty. Showing little girls that being comfortable in the skin and HAIR God gave me is my contribution to society. Little girls (and boys for that matter) need to see that what you look like isn’t a reason to not achieve their goals.

Conforming to one standard isn’t what being American is about and I hope you can embrace that.

Thank you for your comment and have a great weekend and thank for watching.

Lee also responded to a second post on the station's page, one that was later removed for offensive content regarding children that were profiled in a station media event. This second post may have been the straw that got her terminated.

KTBS policy (via this email) states that it is station policy to not respond to any direct complaints on the station's Facebook page.  News Director Randy Bain stated in an interview that Lee violated the policy repeatedly.

Lee contends she never saw the policy, having missed the meeting where the policy was discussed verbally to staff, according to an account Lee gave Journal-isms.

Not that this situation needs more stickiness to it, but Lee has been dismissed from gainful employment before...having lost her job in Austin, TX, a little more than a year ago.

There is voluminous responses to this story throughout the online realm and Capital Weather has done a good job of unloading the bounty of information on this story.  There are plenty of links to what other individuals in the media and punditry are saying about this story.

One angle that's not really getting much play is the whole social media aspect of this, which is the crux of what's going on here, isn't it?

I've pontificated before about how social media is critical in maintaining relevancy for the media in the 21st Century -- that being a part of someone's window on Facebook or twitter is important as they share news tips, story ideas, or provide weather information if it's in the meteorological realm.  It's critical that media stations provide proper training for their employees on how to navigate the minefield that is social media -- understand what to say, how to say it, and that s/he is a representative of the station even on their twitter account or on Facebook.   Having an avoidance policy on complaints is not necessarily a good thing -- an employee should be able to properly respond to them, but do so with tact and professionalism.   Lee definitely responded to the questions about her hair with both tact and professionalism and I don't see anything wrong with the content of what was said.

That said, if Lee was truly unaware of a social media policy and given she is in the public sphere, shouldn't she have checked with management first before responding?  It might have taken days to get the word that it was ok to respond as she intended to but she still would have gained needed cover.  Such responses to complaints should probably be blessed and approved by station management so there is some cover...and shouldn't be done rogue and without station knowledge prior to the response if there was uncertainty about a social media policy.   Bosses should not be left out in the cold and not aware of what exactly is going on.  Whether Lee did communicate with her boss in advance before responding is important -- I would argue it's always best to get management cover or blessing when policies aren't clearly communicated or if there is ambiguity to a policy.

More and more employers are developing social media policies, not necessarily around your ability to play Farmville at work, but around how employees or the employer can utilize social media at work and in what capacity it will be used. It's an increasingly complex and tricky realm -- and for something as simple as typing anywhere from 140 characters to a few lines of text, one message can have significant impact.  Given the number of stories out there about people who have said and done stupid things over Twitter or Facebook, message management is critical.

There may very well be more to the story before we get the final verdict on this but I think important lessons about social media can be learned from this that all stations and their employees can use.  First, clearly defined and in-writing policies that are spelled out.  Second, training for employees to understand how it is a powerful tool and also a tool that, when used poorly, can backfire tremendously.  Third, management needs to be consistent in application of the policy in the workplace.  Last, if something is not spelled out...don't shoot first before asking questions.