I was listening to new-mate, Corrin Dan (#WeStillLoveYouGuyon) on RNZ earlier this week and I heard the segment about the Tranzurban manager posting a meme on Facebook which has caused outrage within the cycling community.
[ TL:DR Manager posts meme into closed group taking the piss out of a key stakeholder group; image is screenshotted and shared with the community that it mocks (cyclists); public fallout ensues ]
There are several things about this situation which should give anyone [yes, anyone] who uses the internet pause for thought. So, what lessons can we learn from this very public decimation?
A closed group is never a closed group.
Lesson 101: “it was a closed group” is not a defence in the public courtroom that is the internet. If you post/like/share/re-tweet (you get the idea) anything on any form of ‘wall”, group, or story - you better damn well expect to stand up and justify it.
Personally, I am all for rejecting the ‘closed group’ defence (I think that if we have any hope of driving out the dark insidious corners of the internet that we have all been very vocal about in the past two months, then we have to demand this). However, what this lesson highlights is the requirement for some re-education amongst people who are prone to share first and think later.
And for those that think “oh, but it was just a bit of fun in a closed group - chill out”; firstly, refer to the key statement of this section (a.k.a Lesson 101). Second, Sharon, this is the litmus test:
Would you put a banner ad with intended ‘bit of fun’ post up with your name on it, in a place where anyone (including your employer) could see it?
If that gives you pause for thought, I’d be scrolling past the share button.
It doesn’t matter who you are.
We’ve all just watched the train wreck (on many levels) that is the Israel Folau incident unfold; and I bet that anyone who had a moment of wonder about their own [or their team’s] social media behaviour probably rested easy thinking that ‘well, they’re not national sports stars, so it’s not of note.’ Or ‘it will fly under the radar’.
The Tranzurban example is a great one for demonstrating that in the public marketplace that is the internet, anyone can be someone for five minutes. The challenge is that as we - increasingly - blend our private and public online and social media presence flying under the radar, in any sense, becomes increasingly difficult. Creepily (but it is my job), if asked, I can tell you where someone works, what they’re up to in their spare time and whether they’re sharing hateful / racist / narcissistic / generally rubbish content.
Sometimes, this ability to stalk every facet of one’s life is a good thing- for example, I’ve been helping to review job applications for an organisation and you can tell a lot about what candidates have (or haven’t) achieved by cross referencing their digital footprint. Other times, like when you post a meme offending an entire community of people that you have a clear power imbalance with (i.e. bus vs cyclist), and your job is listed on your public profile as a manager at a transport company, you’re heading for trouble.
But what about free speech? Ah yes, the perpetual cry of free speech on the internet, being able to say whatever offensive thing you feel like without any repercussions.
That last word is key – repercussions. Look, say whatever you damn well please, but don’t be surprised if there is a ripple effect, the consequences of which you [or your boss/organisation/political party – you get the picture] will have to deal with like a grown-up.
My favourite example of this was highlighted this week: lowlifes who write the most gut-wrenching, threatening and sickening comments, send them onwards, and then cry foul when the recipient shares them on their platform? How is that not justified? Why are people more shocked by the calling out of these trolls, than they are by the trolling comments themselves? It’s a simple fix: if you don’t want to be called out for being a racist, misogynist, creep, then don’t engage in that type of behaviour on the internet. (Actually, don’t engage in it anywhere, but that’s another blog post and a few decades’ worth of conversation to unpack).
“Please hold; your response matters to us”
Spending as much time as we do playing in the digital space, we know a bit about how ‘not to be a dick on the internet’. We have worked with clients to help them understand how to manage and safeguard their teams or as individuals so they do not have to learn the above lessons the hard way. Ask yourself, do you know just how much is visible on your personal profile, or that of your team? What would you do if your social media presence receives a concerning message in regard to someone’s mental health? Do you appreciate what a particularly bored NZ Herald journalist could write as a headline on a slow news day? Some digital food for thought.
In the meantime, what happens if disaster strikes? Lesson 102: how you deal with it is key. Minimising someone’s concerns, making personal observations as to whether something is offensive or not and generally looking to cast blame elsewhere are all examples of inadequate responses. Combine a response like this with the fact that screenshotting exists and you have yourself a true code-red PR disaster.
However, stepping away from the individual for a moment, this comes back to a bigger challenge: a number of brands, companies and organisations are active on social media, but see it as just ‘spending some time on Facebook’. In this new digital age we live in, everything lasts forever and people will call you on your corporate platitudes . It’s not enough to run with the online equivalent of “please hold the line caller” anymore: either take it seriously, respond authentically and genuinely, or prepare to be decimated.
Ahh, sh*t. Where to from here?
There will be different approaches and expectations for different organisations - a private company is different, for example, to the public service. However, the bigger issue is that too many people are still operating in the blind spot, which is what leads to debacles like what we’ve seen recently.
In essence, if you want to share offensive content on the internet, far be it from me to stop you - but, be damn well prepared to stand next to it and defend it - and you don’t get to ‘be surprised’ when someone calls you out on it.
Erin is the founder & Boss Lady of Narrative: an agency dedicated to changing the narrative and helping organisations navigate the new world in which we live. If you’re reading this and feeling a sense of dread about your own organisation’s footprint, get in touch with her to discuss how they could help.