The trouble with social media is that a tough day in the office followed by a couple of glasses of something restorative can lead some people to over-share, just a little. Such was the fate of US TV reporter Shea Allen, who was fired from Alabama’s WAAY-TV last week after her blog: “Confessions of a Red Headed Reporter” came to her employer’s attention.
Allen’s admissions included that she had “gone bra-less during a live broadcast.” Whilst it was probably that particular exposé that led to her blog going viral, other revelations that may have caused her employer to raise an eyebrow include sleeping on the job: “I’ve taken naps in the news car,” a discriminatory attitude to the elderly: “I refuse to do stories involving them or the places they reside” and even petty crime (maybe): “I steal mail and put it back (maybe)”. A full list of Ms Allen’s confessions is below. Some are pretty harmless in isolation, others less so.
WAAY-TV took a dim view and exited Allen forthwith. Although it appears there wasn’t much discussion around this, the issue seems to have been one of reputational damage and not one of insubordination – Allen says she was never asked to take the offending blog down. “There was no defiance or petulance. If I could go back again and do it over I would have never written the post.” She did remove it temporarily after she was fired, but reposted it a short while later under the heading “no apologies”, arguing that what she writes in her own personal time on her own personal blog should not be the concern of her employer.
Reaction to the blog was mixed. Some commentators say WAAY-TV over-reacted: surely journalists should be free to say what they like including poking gentle fun at that their own less professional qualities? One commentator called Ms Allen a “narcissistic attention seeker” while another said she could “take pride in the fact that she stood up for what she believed in”, though quite what that is remains unclear. Her inability to distinguish between the right to express herself freely and the impact of doing so on her own credibility and that of her employer serves only to illustrate the fact that she is (so they say) a bit vacuous.
Whichever view you support, there is a growing body of case law on both sides of the Atlantic highlighting the importance but narrowness of the line between blowing off some steam on social media and making comments that may damage your employer’s commercial reputation. You might think this a matter of common sense, but spelling it out to employees remains key, particularly where yours is a company that encourages or requires employees to push content out over social media as part of their role. In Allen’s own slightly mangled words:
“Now I sort of look at it as sort of, OK, there is such this gray area with social media. On the one hand, management wants you to exploit every social media site you possibly can, put as much content out there, drive to the web, drive to the web. And then on the other hand, I’ve done something in my personal time on the web, a personally designated space and I’ve been terminated for it.”
To reduce the risk of their workforce seeing any “gray area”, employers should set out clear rules to ensure that the lines between work-related and personal social media usage are clear. Tell employees in specific terms what they can and cannot post about the company, their colleagues, their clients and themselves – which should include a reminder that disparaging remarks made in relation to their own personal work output or attitude cast an obvious blight on their employer also. Tell them what the sanction will be if they breach the policy and make them aware that this could include their dismissal.
And the lesson for us all? You can say what you like on your own blog. It may or may not be true. It may or may not be funny. It may or may not be “what you believe in”, or done in your own personal time on your own personal blog space. But if it reflects badly on your performance of your professional duties then whether you are in Alabama like Ms Allen or in the UK, your employer is not likely to share your views on freedom of speech.
How about these as a reflection on Ms Allen’s work?
1. I’ve gone bra-less during a live broadcast and no one was the wiser.
2. My best sources are the ones who secretly have a crush on me.
3. I am better live when I have no script and no idea what I’m talking about.
4. I’ve mastered the ability to contort my body into a position that makes me appear much skinner [sic] in front of the camera than I actually am.
5. I hate the right side of my face.
6. I’m frightened of old people and I refuse to do stories involving them or the places they reside.
7. Happy, fluffy, rainbow stories about good things make me depressed.
8. I’ve taken naps in the news car.
9. If you ramble and I deem you unnecessary for my story, I’ll stop recording but let you think otherwise.
10. I’ve stolen mail and then put it back. (maybe)