How 140 Characters Got a Respected Editor Fired

By Maria Williams Jul 27, 2010
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From a glance at her résumé, Octavia Nasr doesn’t look like a person who would throw her career away thoughtlessly. Sh​e certainly had much to lose: An eminent journalist, with a distinguished, 20-year CNN career, serving most recently as CNN’s senior editor of Middle East affairs—Nasr now evokes a cautionary tale about the dangers of the new social media.

The trouble began on July 4, 2010, when Nasr posted a “tweet” (via Twitter) expressing regret at the death of Lebanese Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Fadlallah and praising him as “one of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” Pointing to Fadlallah’s links to terrorism, supporters of Israel voiced their outrage at Nasr’s words, and on July 7, CNN responded to the public outcry by removing Nasr from her job. Nasr has since explained that she in no way meant to express support for Fadlallah’s terrorist activity—she simply admired his “contrarian and pioneering stand among Shia clerics on women’s rights.” She has apologized publicly for her actions, noting, “Reaction to my tweet was immediate [and] overwhelming and provides a good lesson on why 140 characters should not be used to comment on controversial or sensitive issues, especially those dealing with the Middle East.”

Laws Favor Employers

According to Nancy Flynn, executive director of the ePolicy Institute and author of The e-Policy Handbook,Second Edition, companies’ social media policies are often needlessly vague. In this case, however, CNN’s policy seems sufficiently clear that a casual observer would probably judge Nasr’s post to have violated it. CNN’s policy directs employees as follows: “On these sites [Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc.] only write about something CNN would not report on. Don’t list preferences regarding political parties or newsmakers that are the subject of CNN reporting.”

The experts SHRM Online spoke with agree: If CNN deems that Nasr compromised its reputation or her ability to perform her job, then CNN has more than sufficient reason to let her go.

Bill Martucci, national litigation partner, Shook, Hardy & Bacon, said Nasr faced an unusual career challenge in overseeing a news area (Middle East affairs) that is “fraught with controversy.” He suggested that “to applaud the actions of one group at the expense of another group in this delicate context causes a question about the integrity of the individual and hinders the ability of the organization to report to a diverse audience.”

PR Risks Favor No One

Although CNN might have been right to fire Nasr, no one “wins” in the situation CNN faced. Beth Carvin, CEO and president of Nobscot Corp., an HR technology management firm, said CNN’s actions were sound legally. But she added, “The general public doesn’t have an understanding of the broader issues, and as such it’s easy for them to mistakenly view this as a ‘freedom of speech’ issue, which in reality doesn’t apply. Worse yet, commenters on blogs and news articles are turning it ugly by suggesting that the termination is racially motivated.”

Regardless of the risks, more employers expect their employees to network with customers, clients and prospects via the web. Martucci foresees that the marriage of business and Internet social media will be turbulent for some time to come, but he is optimistic that clearer policies and better training will lead eventually to fewer “catastrophes” like Nasr’s. He predicts that “ever greater discretion will be used by individuals and companies as discussion and guidelines are refined.” For companies and individuals, Carvin sees adapting to new technologies as a better strategy than trying to avoid them to evade legal and PR issues. Social media outreach "requires a bit of interpersonal communications savvy in order to be both personal and professional all at the same time—all the time,” Carvin said. “Whether this [skill] is difficult or not doesn't really matter. It’s a requirement of the job.”

Clear Policy, Thorough Training, Continual Monitoring

Given that the “new media” will likely affect businesses for years, the experts advise forming clear social media policies and conducting in-depth training on those policies as the first line of defense against disaster. The fact that Nasr—a professional communicator with many years of experience—could make the mistake she did highlights the inherent dangers. “The difficulty with programs like Twitter is that the interactions happen very quickly, and because of the personal rapport that is built, the brain sometimes forgets to censor itself,” Carvin wrote in an e-mail to SHRM Online. “Companies need to do a good job of regularly reminding employees how easy it is to make an honest mistake that has devastating consequences. And don’t forget—because a mistake is honest doesn’t mean you get a free pass.”

Flynn cited chilling statistics from the “2009 Electronic Business Communication Policies and Procedures Survey,” conducted by the American Management Association in partnership with the ePolicy Institute. In 2009, 26 percent of companies fired employees for inappropriate Internet use, and 3 percent admitted rejecting prospective employees on the basis of content posted on a personal social media web page. Flynn advises employers to ensure that their employees know that “what you post on the web could cost you a job and it could keep you from getting a job in the future.”

The AMA/ePolicy survey revealed that employer monitoring of employee Internet use is becoming more common, but Flynn said that inadequate monitoring is still a serious problem for which she sees several reasons: “A lot of organizations are just struggling to monitor e-mail,” she said. “Plus, a lot of organizations are short-sighted. They think ‘We don’t tweet or have a corporate blog.’ But even if they don’t, they still need to monitor social media. They need to ask not only, ‘What are our employees writing?’ but also, ‘What are our former employees and our competitors writing?’” According to Flynn, “responsible companies” need to take the following measures to protect themselves:

  • Develop a social media policy.
  • Reinforce the policy with training that explains it and applicable regulatory rules and federal and state laws.
  • Monitor the web writings of employees, former employees and competitors.
  • Automate the monitoring process as much as possible.

Automation tools include URL blockers that block social media web sites from employees' workplace machines and software that scans for keywords and search engines that search blogs. Flynn recommends taking advantage of all available tools. She notes that very large companies often assign a team—sometimes including an IT director, compliance director, someone from the legal department and an HR director—that is notified about what the search and scanning technology turns up. “Whatever time and money you spend preventing disaster is minimal compared to what you’ll spend if disaster strikes,” Flynn said.

Maria Williams is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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