On June 17, 1972, burglars broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C. with the intent of installing listening devices and photographing documents. Five men were arrested that night, and during the ensuing two-year investigation, it was discovered that that President Nixon had a penchant for making White House audio recordings. Apparently, he was a real devotee of the evidence-creation arts. The scandal took down his presidency.
In the aftermath, one conclusion not drawn was, “President Nixon has a tape recorder problem mixed with a poorly executed break-in problem.”
In early 2012, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney gathered with a sympathetic crowd of donors in San Francisco. Feeling comfortable in his surroundings, among a base of voters he needed to rally and solidify, he proceeded to dismiss 47% of the electorate as government-dependent, saying, “My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” Via a strategically placed camera, his musings subsequently became public, and at a time when his campaign was struggling, this was trouble they did not need. His “not elegantly stated” comments made him a tough sell to independent voters.
In the aftermath, one conclusion not drawn was, “Governor Romney and his communications team have a surreptitiously placed camera problem.”
CIA Director David Petraeus and his mistress, Paula Broadwell, secretly communicated via Gmail by creating email drafts that they would never send. If one never hits send on that love note, then there is no love note. However, once Jill Kelley informed the FBI that she had received threatening emails allegedly sent by Broadwell, law enforcement determined that the threatening emails and the Gmail love account were originating from the same IP address. Busted.
In the aftermath, one conclusion not drawn was, “General Petraeus and his paramour have a sexy email and traceable IP address problem.”
Former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner snapped some unfortunate photos of himself and tweeted them to a female Twitter follower. He then claimed he had been hacked. After some additional truthiness gymnastics, he finally admitted he tweeted the picture, and his congressional career was over.
In the aftermath, one conclusion not drawn was “Representative Weiner has a cell phone camera problem.” In fact, social media was blamed. Representative Weiner had a “social media problem.” We’ve subsequently seen companies like Taco Bell, Kitchenaid and Amy’s Baking Company make similar “social media mistakes.”
Four stories, the same lesson
Small tape recorders, camera phones, old-fashioned letters created with fountain pens, the mouths and typing fingers of human beings conveying thoughts from within, and social media – each is a documentation and communications device that can become the gateway to a public show of seriously poor judgment. And at last check, public displays of poor judgment predate social media’s emergence by perhaps thousands of years.
Employees make poor decisions and embarrassing blunders on social media while representing their employers, and, while they often get fired, their decision-making faculties do not exclusively get the blame. The medium takes a hit, too. To mitigate risk, company executives sometimes slow down or shut down social media output. Their conclusion? “We have a social media problem.”
No, we do not. Your blundering employee had a failure of judgment. They just did something stupid, and social media happened to be the method of conveyance at the time. High-profile social media embarrassments are proof of nothing except poor human judgment, a lack of training, and perhaps poor hiring. They are not proof that social media is dangerous. Organizations that misdiagnose such a problem sometimes decide that social media is too thorny, too risky, and they pull back the reins or quit entirely. As social media is not going away, such a decision, having been made on poor grounds, will ultimately prove hasty.
I hate to see this happen! The marketing or corporate communications department cannot afford to lose one of its most effective forms of engagement. If you choose to use social media as part of an integrated marketing effort, and want employees to participate in social on behalf of the company, the company needs to hire judicious people. Those employees then need training on exercising proper judgment across all of their communication touchpoints (something your friends at Falk Harrison can provide). This includes in-person sales pitches, internal meetings, cocktail parties, the phone, emails and, of course, social media.
Companies should understand where the real risks lie and take measured steps to ensure that their team uses good judgment in all interactions with its audiences. If you decide to kick Facebook and Twitter in the rear for all of the trouble they caused, you might as well be kicking yourself.