When Personal isn’t really Personal

On Tuesday, July 30, a story came out that a reporter at a television station in Alabama was fired for what she posted on her personal blog. It immediately became another instance of: Is what you write on a personal blog really that personal?

To summarize, Shea Allen, the now-former investigative reporter for WAAY in Huntsville, did a blog post, titled, “No Apologies: Confessions of a Red Headed Reporter.” Ms. Allen states in the post that she has gone bra-less during a live broadcast and that she’s taken naps in the news car. You can read the rest of her post by clicking the link above. The post made waves with her station’s management and she was fired.  The move made some wonder if this was a violation of Ms. Allen’s first amendment rights.

photo credit: WAAY

photo credit: WAAY

Reaction to the story has been mainly supportive on Twitter; the comments on her blog appear to be 60-40 in favor of what she wrote. Here’s where I say I understand the personal blog “boundaries,” but for a person in the public eye, it’s not so personal.

Ms. Allen was employed by WAAY, therefore she should have been a more careful in what she posted on her blog, even though it’s labeled as “personal.”  We know way too well that despite saying in your Twitter bio “tweets are my own” or “tweets do not reflect my employer’s opinion,” if you say something that isn’t appropriate or can bring bad publicity to your employer, you are going to get in trouble. The same goes for a blog. Did WAAY have something in its contracts with employees that talked about social media or blogging? I’m not sure.  In this age of social media and quick posting, it’s necessary to think first, then post.

However, I need to defend Ms. Allen because, unless the reports of previous reprimands are true, this shouldn’t have been a one strike and gone issue. Yes, she re-posted the blog after initially being asked to take it down. Are the things she posted a little out-of-bounds? Maybe. But she’s an award-winning journalist, was respected by her peers, and this certainly isn’t something like the Larry Mendte/Alicia Lane issue in Philadelphia back in 2008. There should have been a suspension, at the least.

This is a teachable moment for young reporters (and even young PR/social media pros): Just because it is labeled “personal,” what you put online (blog, social media, etc.), isn’t personal anymore. It’s public.

What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments.

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About JasMollica

"It's never too late to have a life and it's never too late to change one." That's something I tell students, friends, and family all the time. After living and working in New York City, I took my own advice in 2004, switched my career from the television/radio industry and got into public relations. Now, I spend my days as a PR/social media marketing consultant and get inspired daily. It's been a good ride, so far. But the car has plenty of gas left. I hope you'll join along in this guy's journey!

Posted on July 31, 2013, in Hot Topic and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. I’m reading tea leaves a bit here, but I think the sequence of events here matters a lot. She originally posts her article. She then takes it down because of negative feedback (we don’t know WHERE that feedback is coming from). She then says, “Screw it. I’m putting it back up.”

    Again, reading tea leaves and making an assumption here…if her employer was one of the entities telling her to take it down and she put it back up…I think they’re absolutely justified in terminating her. If that’s not the case…I doubt a Huntsville, Alabama TV station is accustomed to being in that bright of a limelight and it seems like a bit of overreaction to fire her. Frankly, I thought the most damning things in her article were her refusal to cover a certain type of story and sleeping in the news vehicle (which I interpreted as sleeping on the job). We could debate right or wrong all day…but if you admit to refusing to do something assigned to you and sleeping on the job it certainly isn’t surprising that she got canned.

    • Thanks Matt for your take. If I read some of the stories correctly her station’s management called her in about the post, asked her to take it down, which she did. Then she re-posted it a day or two later.
      I took the sleeping in the newsvan as catnap or something, which I use to do on the way back from stories a few hours away. I thought the refusal to cover senior citizen stories was a bit much.
      All in all, I don’t see firing her, but definitely a suspension. I’m sure WAAY is one of those “stops” on the way to a bigger gig. Every station nowadays needs to have a policy in place, regardless of size.

  2. This is pretty much why my blog has been at a standstill. I usually blog without a filter but now I know that coworkers read it. I wish I could just write honestly but it does now reflect upon someone else, even though I’m not in the public eye I know management follows our tweets and social media and I have to be very careful. Trying to find that line and be near it without crossing.

    • You’ve now been on both sides, HillC. I’d be interested to know how your station handles social media and what their policy may be. Thanks for your insight, which is needed here!

  3. You’re 100% correct, Jason. This is why social media will be the death of the “esteemed public figure”: most of today’s best and brightest are airing their dirty laundry daily on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram (and on Instagram it might literally be a picture of their dirty laundry…#livingsingleproblems).

    I’ve had to learn to dial back my own political diatribe, and even watch what I say in online social commentaries. Even having a “personal” Facebook account and a “professional” Facebook page will only take you so far. Know who your friends are…and often go through and delete those you’ve drifted away from. Very, very often.

    • Very good perspective, Geoff. You’re a terrific example of someone doing it right on social. We’ve seen social media destroy reps of public and not-so public figures.

  4. Oh boy. How many characters does one reply box hold? I’ll try to summarize even though I could go on and on (which may be more therapeutic for me than informative for others). At the base of the entire situation is what we all know: nothing is “private,” even “anonymous” blogs. Is it a relief and fun expression to share some edgy things about work? Yes. Does it threaten our ability to keep our jobs? Probably, especially if we are in an “at will” position. Back when I first started getting involved in social media, I broke what has come to be one of my principles of interacting with a business with which I am dissatisfied: I posted a critical youtube video (this was about a product we use at our office) and tagged the manufacturer on Twitter. I am not sure what transpired between posting that tweet, the manufacturer’s very on-the-ball social media team seeing it, and the local dealer being informed, but I quickly found myself on the receiving end of an email from my IT department directing me to take the video down. Long story short, I left it up and was “counseled” by my supervisor that I should not have responded to the manufacturer about our inoperable (difficult to operate) machinery under the auspices of our employer. And although the product did have issues, I admit I was more upset that fellow staff members threw childish fits about the thing not working rather than taking a logical approach (ask IT, ask the manufacturer, etc) than anything. I ended up having some great conversations with their VP of Communications. But it was unfair to them to bark up the Twitter public shame train first and heaven knows it hurt me professionally. So much so that in an unrelated conversation a year or two down the road our Executive Director told me “it’s just better off when you don’t mention us (my employer) in your blog.” And trust me my blogs haven’t been about bralessness on the job; they’ve been pretty “vanilla” but honest. Anyway – he is not a social media fan; he doesn’t understand it and the prospect of our organization being a topic of social media turns on his fear radar. As an employee I have had to choose to weigh that with my freedom of expression. (I do still talk about my employer on my blog — I wouldn’t let that stop me — but I am more circumspect I think. As my family’s (sometimes) only breadwinner there are some risks I can’t take).

    I could go on and on but that’s enough for one comment. The anonymous and personal …. isn’t. Rightly or wrongly that’s a reality we must all flace.

  5. If you post your blog publicly, then it is not personal. In fact, anything you post on the Internet is not personal even if it is personal information.

    I run a personal blog where I share thoughts about work, life and everything in between. On several occasions, I’ve shared experiences at work, usually to give advise. All but one post went live without any backlash. The one said post freaked my boss out and we had an hour conversation about it. She wasn’t mad, more concerned that I was getting the wrong impression. But still, I freaked out and we both probably wasted time we didn’t have.

    My company does have a social media policy that I live and die by. It is printed and anytime I post about work, I reference it. Lucky for me, my supervisors are super supportive of my blog so they are happy to review before I post, just in case.

    Bottom line: Anyone can easily make connections to your place of employment from a blog post, especially if you link it to other social media sites. If you wouldn’t let you boss, grandmother and significant other read/see it, don’t post it.

    Great post Jason! Very applicable to all of us bloggers!

    • Important point about the social media policy, for sure Alex! I think we have one b/c I heard it referenced in a conversation about how we “had” to have one for one of our governmental contracts but it hasn’t been distributed to staff. And with apologies to all for the length of this reply & my previous comment, when my supervisor had me go through items on her desk once (she was out of town & needed something) and I inadvertently found the inch-thick folder labeled “social media policy” that was heavy on firings for unauthorized mentions of employer, it pretty much told me what I needed to know regardless of what the final product said. :-)

    • Your perspective, like Paula’s, was a good example of the “pause” we need to have before posting a blog, or on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for sharing your example, Alex!

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