In May 2013 there was an incident online that culminated in a fairly well known online personality losing her gig as a spokesperson, two other people losing their jobs, and a fairly well known conference losing its luster. In the long run everyone was tainted, everyone was to blame, and it ends up giving us some lessons to learn about just how powerful social media can be. And, for once, it involved someone I know, so I hope I present this as fairly as possible.

Reputation
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Here’s the general overview. Two guys were at a conference sitting in the audience and saying some things to each other that weren’t quite proper in public. The person in front of them heard it, didn’t appreciate it, turned around and called them on it. They apologized for it and maybe all should have been over then and there.

But it wasn’t. The person in front, who happens to be the person I know, turned around and took a picture of the two guys and uploaded it to Twitter, with a brief report. That’s when things got out of hand.

The two guys were representing a company that was advertising at the conference. Once they were recognized they were fired.

The person who took the picture was representing someone as a personality who was sponsoring the event. Many people felt she went overboard with the picture, especially since the two guys had apologized, and that made the sponsor genuflect and relieve her. And since a lot of what she did involved some of the talent of the conference, the trickle down meant having to now scramble for someone else to handle what she’d been doing, someone not as well known and not as skilled.

Would you say that everything that could go wrong went wrong? Who’s at fault here? Is this cut and dry, or is it pretty complicated?

It is and isn’t complicated. Let’s run down a few things here.

1. In this day and age, people tend to believe they can say whatever they want to say whenever they want to say it. The loss of decorum is problematic, but that’s a separate issue.

2. The real issue is that almost everyone has a smartphone with a camera, and they could have been recorded being stupid as well as having their picture taken. If you’re in public, even if you’re not well known, you can’t afford to be saying overtly stupid things. We never found out if it was sexist or racist, but if this person I know reacted that badly to it, it had to be one of those, as she’s a black female.

3. Based on what was said, did she go too far, not far enough, or not in the proper manner? It’s hard to say. As I get older I let more of that type of thing roll off my shoulders, though I’d have said something, but when I was younger I’d have gone for the jugular, knowing I was right whether I was or not.

4. Still, being in her position, she had to know that something was going to happen, at least to the two people. What she didn’t count on was the reaction of other people to what she’d done. Do apologies overcome all bad behavior? Not even close. Is there a time and place for everything? Absolutely.

5. The thing is that even being known by people at that event, she wasn’t on the level of a TV or movie celebrity where everyone would have immediately sided with her. Even so, do you think if it had been someone like Selina Gomez that she’d have been treated much differently?

6. The company that fired her; did they over react or do the right thing? They were not being tainted by bad publicity but did they stop to consider her feelings? Should they have? Did they consider the consequences of how it could affect the conference? Did it matter?

At this point there are no more answers to be found. The two guys were fired and their 15 minutes are over. The person I know has gone into a self imposed exile for awhile. The buzz has died down so the sponsor is probably going to be fine, and the conference will probably survive for another year but it’s been diminished a bit because even though there were some people who felt what the person I know did was wrong, there were a lot of people who said they’d have done the same thing.

The major lesson is that if you’re representing someone, even just yourself, in a public space for business purposes, your decorum has to be higher than normal. Even if you’re in the right, you could end up on the wrong side of things in the long run. Think about this cautionary tale; what are you willing to risk your reputation for?
 

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