Social Media Smashing Your Face In?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on May 26th, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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I remember the first time the call went out that pieces of some space exploration  equipment were going to be falling from the sky, landing we knew not where.  There were projections which—I truly thought then and now—were more hopes and spin put out there with the intent to diffuse anxiety about the “sky falling in”—that it would land in the desert or the ocean.  But the reality was, the “experts” had no clue.  And I so remember at the time ranting at the “experts” for getting so carried away by the thrill of something new that they failed a) to think through carefully and completely about the implications of this invention for the rest of society and what it was they were unleashing  and b) to design any procedures surrounding this new thing.

History does love to repeat itself, though this time it is social media.  Most, if not all, of us have heard the stories of athletes self-immolating by putting something quick and not really thought through out on Twitter. Amazing how much damage 140 characters can do!  Just ask Reggie Bush, Rashard Mendenhall, Matt Hasselbeck , and Antonio Cromartie.  And I know and know of too many twenty-somethings who had a great time with their Facebook pages while in high school and college and subsequently lost job opportunities because potential employers didn’t like what they found on those pages.

The nonprofit sector is not immune!  We have jumped on the social media bandwagon almost as quickly as everyone else.  Just this past weekend, at an event I attended, the free workshop on social media drew a packed room, while my workshop on the board and its roles and responsibilities maybe had less than twenty.  As I stood at the door and listened to the last half-hour, I heard only how to do it and nothing on how to protect yourself and your organization.  Had folks come to my session on a board’s roles and responsibilities, they would have learned that the board should have created some policies guiding everyone on what is and isn’t allowed on company time, and not.

Last year, the story made the rounds of the women in St. Louis who worked for a nonprofit by day and was a sex blogger by night.  She was discovered because her boss was told by her superiors to google her and other employees.  The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has just determined that Hispanics United of Buffalo acted illegally when it fired five employees who took their office complaints onto Facebook.  Seems the NLRB believes that talking about your employer, work conditions, fellow employees, etc., on Facebook is akin to talking about all of that standing around “the water cooler,” and you can’t be fired for that.

And then there is the story of Reel Grrls, a Seattle, Washington nonprofit that uses media production to empower young women.  Comcast, a  funder for the last three years of Reel Grrls’ summer camp, withdrew its $18,000 funding when it learned of a Reel Grrls’ staff member tweet criticizing Comcast for hiring as a lobbyist a member of the Federal Communications Commission that approved Comcast’s purchase of NBC.  (The FCC member, obviously, is stepping down to accept the position at Comcast.)  Comcast has since reinstated the grant, but Reel Grrls has refused it, preferring not to be associated with an organization that they perceive as blocking freedom of speech.  You go, Grrls!

But that is not the point of this blog.  The point of this blog is to ask boards of directors:  what guidance have you given your organization—you, the staff, volunteers—for the use of this “new” invention?  No doubt your organizations are on Facebook and Twitter, and maybe Linked-In and other similar sites.  (And I am sure board members, employees, volunteers, some clients, are as well.)  Social media is the rage among for-profits and nonprofits alike.  But have you given any guidance as to what is okay and not okay in using social media  as it relates to the organization, employees, colleagues, collaborators, competitors, funders—you get the picture—or not?

What are the standards and expectations that surround their use of these sites as it pertains to their personal positions and interests and the organization’s use of those sites to check up on them? While at work?  While on their own time? And what are the policies surrounding monitoring employees and volunteers?  Does this just happen at work? Or, will big brother be watching what is done on their own time, under their own name or a pseudonym?

I am not a lawyer, so I cannot say what is within your legal rights.  What I can say is that you need to have a philosophical discussion about what your organization—in light of its mission and core values—will and will not tolerate, and then you need to run it past your attorney to make sure it is a legal position.  Do you want to fire someone who is an exemplary employee while at work because s/he has a salacious blog on his/her own time? or has friended a group that you find questionable?  Do you want to be the organization that scans people’s Facebook (or wherever) pages before hiring them (or accepting them onto the board) to see if they got drunk in college, posed in an outrageous costume or helped senior citizens with their groceries?  Or do you want to be the organization that says do whatever or give no guidelines.

We have clearly introduced into society an innovation before having thought through all of the implications and ramifications.  The sky is not falling in, but things may be a bit out of control.  By allowing them to remain so, boards risk creating problems—and lawsuits—that are within their purview to prevent.  It isn’t too late to close the barn door, but you better act quickly.


The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.