Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

The week everybody banned Twitter

This was the week that everybody banned Twitter.

Mike Leach made headlines Monday, instituting a no-Twitter policy after Brandon Carter and Marlon Williams used Twitter accounts to complain about the team.

Corporations and media organizations across the country are struggling with the issue as social media chips away at their power structures and threatens to compromise their public image.

ESPN has clamped down on its employees, allowing only “official” ESPN-sanctioned use of social media tools.

But Rob King, ESPN.com editor-in-chief, doesn’t want anyone to call it a ban. He told Sports Business Daily, “The word ‘ban’ suggests that we’re not letting employees engage on these platforms at all … and that could not be further from the truth. We want to uphold the same editorial standards for reporting something, regardless of the medium.”

The Washington Post has also cracked down on its reporters this week, implementing a policy that has New Media critics shaking their heads. The policy was implemented after Raju Narisetti, one of the Post’s managing editors, posted two (rather innocuous) political opinions on his Twitter account.

He thought he was making offhand remarks to an audience of 90 friends. The Post saw it as a challenge to its integrity – a dangerous blurring of the lines between news coverage and personal opinion.

That’s the essential contradiction faced by journalists in the digital age. In today’s hypersensitive political environment, every word they write affects the reputation of their company, no matter when or where they write it.

Whether you’re a journalist, a corporate spokesman or a football coach, the dilemma is the same. It’s all about management of public opinion. You may draw a line between your work life and your private life, but your audience doesn’t.

You may just be a front-line employee building engines for an auto company, but when you Twitter about corporate policy, you’re sharing inside information with competitors and customers.

The nature of the Internet guarantees that if a claim can be twisted, exaggerated or misquoted, you can be certain it will be, faster and louder than any corporate PR department can control.

Social media has turned all communication into mass communication and that means we’re all in the public relations business now.

Let’s go back to that hypothetical assembly line. What would happen to an employee who wrote this? “Was just putting an axle on a new SUV and the thing came apart in my hands. This thing is gonna be a deathtrap when it hits the streets.”

Now we’ve crossed the line from a simple PR gaff to the kind of disclosure that can cost a company millions. The worker doesn’t provide details. He may not even be telling the truth, but one quick tweet from a disgruntled employee could sabotage a whole product line.

To put this in perspective, let’s take the Internet out of it. Let’s roll back the clock from 2009 to 1969 and imagine what would happen to a football player who criticized his coach in the campus newspaper.

How about an assembly line worker who wrote his claims on a sandwich board and went marching around downtown?

The Internet hasn’t changed the essential nature of free speech. It’s just made that speech easier, faster and cheaper. And believe it or not, it’s also made our rumors more accurate.

Before the advent of social media, it was easy to say you had been misheard or misquoted. But once something is broadcast on Twitter, it can be copied word for word and spread to thousands of people in the blink of an eye.

A player might try to deny a quote that was only heard live by one interviewer, but once something is published on Twitter or Facebook, you can’t stuff the genie back in the bottle.

Free speech isn’t particularly free in a world bound by libel, slander and defamation laws. The Internet has just made that obvious. I think we’ll see a lot more organizations clamping down on social media this year.

The perfect world of open communication doesn’t really exist, but let’s take a moment to dream. What if Congress passed true free speech legislation, providing unilateral protection against libel, defamation, job loss or financial damages for everyone who publishes on the Internet?

What if you could go home every day and call your boss a jerk, by name, in detail – describing every stupid policy and every dumb product decision made in your workplace?

What if you could write whatever you wanted about Mike Leach and still keep your spot on the team?

What kind of world would it be if every worker, every clerk and every frustrated office drone in the country could tell the truth about where they work, without fear of reprisal?

What would happen to business news? What would happen to the stock market? And what would happen to the next Bernie Madoff?

Corporate PR statements would get very honest, very fast. Managers would start treating their workers like ticking time bombs and a whole lot of people would have to stop taking themselves seriously.

Citizens would have to make forgiveness a way of life – forgiving mistakes, forgiving bad manners – even forgiving hypocrisy when their favorite politicians got caught with their pants down.

It sounds like fun until the spotlight turns on you. Are you ready to hear the truth about what everyone in your life thinks of you? Are you ready for everyone in your church to read the Twitter feed of the McDonald’s clerk you were rude to yesterday?

Are you ready for your parents, your customers and your children to see what your boss really thinks of the work you just turned in?

We’re headed for an open, honest new world, but the truth cuts both ways.

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Written by Michael B. Duff

October 2, 2009 at 10:39

Posted in Best Of, Columns, Twitter

5 Responses

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  1. I am shocked at the childish behavior of a person like Coach Leach. I am surprised that he would think that childish behavior would be of any use in winning football games. I am surprised that he would think he could suppress any form of communication, the underground newspapers have been in use for several hundred years now. I would certainly rather have someone say something about me that I can reply to and know to whom I am speaking rather than some anonymous person hiding behind an underground newpaper.

    Tommy R. Carter

    October 3, 2009 at 22:34

  2. Social media has turned all communication into mass communication and that means we’re all in the public relations business now.

    I think that is generally what’s going on. It’s also worth noting that “public relations” is essentially the science of devolving philosophy into rhetoric, watering down truth and objectivity.

    Great blog today, Duff. One of your best, I think.

    Kenny Ketner

    October 5, 2009 at 10:38

  3. Thank you!

    I’m fascinated by the phrase, “devolving philosophy into rhetoric.”

    What does that mean?

    Are you implying there is inherent honesty in philosophy and inherent dishonesty in rhetoric?

    Michael Duff

    October 5, 2009 at 10:55

  4. That is basically what I am implying, yes. Philosophy concerns itself with truth, while PR is essentially the science of making humans less rational (which is surprisingly easy to do, as demonstrated by behavioral economists like Dan Ariely).

    Not that all-rationality-all-the-time is the best thing (or even possible!), but any discipline that has at its core a short-circuiting of rationality is suspect. I’m channeling Bill Hicks here.

    Kenny Ketner

    October 6, 2009 at 02:36

  5. Posts like this provide a meaningful and practical public service, enlightenment if you will, in an area most of us don’t usually think about. Too bad you can’t do it more often.

    Paul Lyle

    October 17, 2009 at 22:46


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