Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Is No Answer the Best Answer?

Everyone agrees, open comments are the bane of the internet age.  The recent case of Rhonda Lee, former TV meteorologist here in my neighborhood, brings up two distinct issues.  Should you respond to comments on Facebook?  And, yes, you can get fired for violating company policy on social media.

Like any good internet case, this one has plenty of plot turns.  I'll take it from my P.O.V.

This morning, I see that KTBS has a lengthy Facebook post that begins:

Typically this station does not comment on personnel matters, but due to the publicity and interest about this issue, the station has included the following statement. 

OK, you officially have my interest.  Reading on (from the post):

On November 28, 2012, KTBS dismissed two employees for repeated viola

tion of the station’s written procedure. We can confirm that Rhonda Lee was one of the employees. Another employee was a white male reporter who was an eight year veteran of the station. The policy they violated provided a specific procedure for responding to viewer comments on the official KTBS Facebook page. Included is an email that was sent to all news department employees informing them of this procedure. This procedure is based on advice from national experts and commonly used by national broadcast and cable networks and local television stations across the country.
Unfortunately, television personalities have long been subject to harsh criticism and negative viewer comments about their appearance and performance. If harsh viewer comments are posted on the station’s official website, there is a specific procedure to follow.
Ms. Rhonda Lee was let go for repeatedly violating that procedure and after being warned multiple times of the consequences if her behavior continued. Rhonda Lee was not dismissed for her appearance or defending her appearance. She was fired for continuing to violate company procedure.

Attached was an email that had everyone's name blacked out except for Ms. Lee -- including the sender.  Highlighed in the email was the statement:

"When you see complaints from viewers, it is best not to respond at all."

This was the basis of Lee's firing, according to the station.  I can't say that works, and it sounds like advice from the Age of Cronkite when the mode of communication in the pre-social media days was broadcast -- one to many -- not interactive -- one to one.

Let's accept the premise, however, that the "advice form national experts" is to not reply to comments.  One of the viewers hits the nail on the head in comments on the post: "You should have never allowed that negative comment to stay on YOUR page!"

No one believes there is a right to leave derogatory comments online.  A well curated page will delete them, and have a clearly stated policy to that effect so no one can then say you squelched free speech.  You're free to say what you want on your page, not necessarily on mine.

Here's the bottom line:  if a brand decides that not commenting is policy, what happens when the brand decides to comment?

On the one hand, KTBS honors the free exchange of the social media by bringing out its point of view and it has a right to say its piece.  But is the station now fired for violating it's own policy -- after all, it has now commented.  That was my first thought -- and not lost on the commenting public (and to the tune of 293 likes on that one).

If the goal was to put this to rest, that was a huge miscalculation. I follow the KTBS page and Twitter for news -- I had no clue this was going on until KTBS brought it to my attention.  Nor did national outlets, for that matter, like Poynter.  After 10 hours, the post is at 83 shares, 93 likes, but the real numbers are inside the comments, where 808 people have responded, and isolated comments have picked up north of 350 likes -- and mostly comments negative toward the station.

At this point, KTBS has to weather the storm and let the public have it's say.  To it's credit, it is.  Meanwhile, is a question worth asking -- what is the station's curation policy for its page?  Why did an inflammatory comment linger?

And whoever drafted that email on the policy -- I can see some level of privacy for not revealing the rest of the news staff names (although, kinda silly since all their names were likely on the station's website and it just looks like you're hiding something) -- why did they feel the need to not stand behind it by blacking out their name?  But left their title?  So that took five seconds of Google to figure out who wrote it.  How would any TV station respond to a government agency that did that?

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