No one with a Facebook page or Twitter account could fail to have sympathy for the Ketchum staffer, whose Tweet about his client FedEx's home city of Memphis, TN, led to recriminations from the company and apologies from the firm. According to the staffer, he was responding to an “intolerant” remark made to him during his stay in the city, a provocation that might have led many of us to do the same thing.
But even though the use of these platforms is pervasive, the incident has drawn something of a generational line across many water-cooler conversations, including some in this office. There are two basic camps. On one side is the “he's a professional, he should know better than to air personal views about anything related to a client online” perspective. The other side says, “The guy's entitled to his opinion and to tell the truth as he sees it. Are you a communist?”
I exaggerate slightly, simply to convey the level of passion that usually accompanies that viewpoint. This is not a topic that the so-called digital natives feel ambivalent or even laissez faire about. Authenticity and free expression are articles of faith, no less, to the true influencers online, and digital communications will always be vulnerable to the repercussions, as well as the benefits, of that conviction.
This is hardly the first example of PR pros getting into difficulties after expressing opinions online. And while I lean toward the “he should know better” camp, I am starting to wonder if such a unilateral view is a bit too pat to be truly edifying, too knee-jerk and traditional at a time when we are all still coming to grips with a relatively new communications frontier.
Obviously there's a pragmatic point here – you don't talk trash about your clients, their city, kids, car, religion, politics, or anything else for that matter – and not just online, but anywhere public, including a bar, hospital, or pet store. Duh. Everything naturally gets heightened when talking about the online world because the prospective community is so much larger. People take online musings very seriously indeed.
But even as we urge caution in our online communications, it would be a shame if PR pros become so afraid of offense that it curbs too far the creative and community-spirited impulses that have engendered so much excitement and innovation in the profession. We must, at times, let the medium mete out its own rewards and punishments, and keep our corporate sensibilities out of it. This is critical for retaining the talent that can do this stuff. If we don't, and we lose sight of authentic communications in the online world, neither the talent nor clients will look to PR for online answers.
Julia Hood is publishing director of PRWeek.