By Jeff Wilson, APR (wilson0507)
With the start of the fall semester upon us, I’ve started receiving invitations from local colleges and universities asking me to speak to some of their PR classes about what I do and how I do it. Inevitably, I’ll receive questions from eager, young PR minds about social media and public relations.
I’ll talk about how social media has completely revolutionized the public relations industry. And inevitably, I’ll share cautionary tales of the “dark side” of social media, recounting countless incidences of PR upstarts who have not gotten jobs or lost their jobs because of what they’ve posted on Facebook and Twitter.
“With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”
Social media can be wonderful and powerful communications tools. But like most great tools, social media also can be abused. I usually offer some simple – if not obvious – advice to young people about using social media in the workplace, such as:
- It’s okay to have pictures of yourself on Facebook having a good time with your friends. It’s not okay to have pictures of yourself on Facebook in a near-alcoholic coma after the big game.
- If you’re lucky enough to land a job in PR, don’t sit at your desk all day complaining of being bored at work or lamenting about what idiots your bosses, co-workers and clients are.
- While we live in a free country, and you have the right to voice your opinions openly, be mindful and tactful of posts and tweets expressing your political and religious views or views on other controversial topics. You never know how your rantings will be taken by your colleagues.
- And if you can’t help but post outrageous photos or say outrageous things on social networking sites, think before you decide to “friend” your supervisors and co-workers in the first place.
The issues surrounding social media and the workplace aren’t just germane to public relations. Many other professions are grappling with how to deal with employees’ comments on social media networks.
Doctors, Teachers and Facebook
Take doctors for example. In July, the British Medical Association issued new guidance to physicians advising them not to “friend” current or former patients on Facebook. The BMA’s recommendation is primarily targeted at protecting physicians from having their personal information accessed, thus possibly compromising the physician-patient relationship. At the same time, the BMA thinks it’s best that doctors also avoid getting too involved in their patients’ personal lives. The American Medical Association’s policy on Professionalism on the Use of Social Media doesn’t go as far as to say “don’t friend,” but it does warn physicians to use caution when posting and sharing information online.
Online relationships between teachers and students can be even trickier. The State of Missouri tried to enact a statewide law that would ban teachers from directly communicating with students on sites such as Facebook. The law, which aimed to protect students from sexual abuse, prohibited teachers from having accounts on Facebook or other social networking sites that allow “exclusive access” with students. A state judge struck down the law this week after the Missouri Teachers Association filed suit to have the law declared unconstitutional, arguing that the law violated their First Amendment rights to free speech.
Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem issued an injunction banning the state from enforcing the new law for at least 180 days. In his ruling, Beetem declared that “social networking is extensively used by educators,” adding that the law is so far-reaching that it “clearly prohibits communications between family members and their teacher-parents using these types of sites.”
Not a Cut-and-Dry Issue
And yet, for many companies, regulating employees’ use of social media or terminating them for violating company policies may not be as simple as it seems. Companies need to carefully consider whether they’re breaking the law by firing someone over his or her use of social media, according to a recent analysis by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of 129 charges recently filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) involving social media and the workplace.
“The issues most commonly raised in the cases before the Board allege that an employer has overbroad policies restricting employees use of social media or that an employer unlawfully discharged or disciplined one or more employees over contents of social media posts,” according to the Chamber.
According to the analysis, employees have been reprimanded or terminated for posts they’ve made on social networking sites related to wages, firing of co-workers and disparaging comments about their company and its management.
“A Brave New World”
The NLRB has only just begun to address these issues. As the Chamber notes, it’s hard to speculate as to how the NLRB will rule as these cases develop and whether those decisions will withstand judicial scrutiny.
In any case, for employees, it’s always best to air on the side of good judgment. What’s posted on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites can have lasting ramifications. So think before you “tweet” … and post.