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Sunday, April 15, 2012

Corporate Censorship and Other Reasons to Fire Your PR Agency

Once upon a time, Steve Yegge had a very bad week. A programmer at Google, Steve wrote an internal memo ranting against the company's service platforms.  Once he was done tidily deriding his employer, he sent his internal the entire reading public.


See, Steve had done something we've all managed to do at least once.  He did the blog equivalent of hitting "reply all".

Steve decided to take down the post, but the damage was already done.  His rant had gone viral and copies were all over the web and media.

Fortunately, for Steve, Google isn't the kind of company that censors it's employees.

"I contacted our internal PR folks and asked what to do, and they were also nice and supportive," he later wrote. "But they didn't want me to think that they were even hinting at censoring me -- they went out of their way to help me understand that we're an opinionated company, and not one of the kinds of companies that censors their employees."

So once the media dust settled, what kind of punishment or reprimand did Google dole out to their opinionated employee?

None.  They just listened to him.

"Amazingly, nothing bad happened to me at Google. Everyone just laughed at me a lot, all the way up to the top, for having committed what must be the great-granddaddy of all Reply-All screwups in tech history... But they also listened, which is super cool."

In this situation, the employee in question never intended for his post to be read outside of the company. 

But what if he had? 

What if on his personal blog, on his personal time, he had written the exact same post and unabashedly hit the "Post" button?  Would Google's response have been different?

I don't think so.

Because Google is smart.

Companies are finally realizing that social media is not going away.  For every one CEO that is rushing to their HR department to see about hiring a creative, talented person to harness its power, there are three other CEO's rushing to their HR department to see how fast they can write a policy limiting what employees can and can't do online.

Even more disturbing, there are still PR agencies advising paying clients to commit censorship tactics.

While expecting that employees not write disparaging, pornographic, or false information in their online activities is perfectly reasonable, trying to police, muzzle, and otherwise stifle the organic expressions of people who work for you is counter productive, unethical, and just plain stupid.

First of all, forcing people to take down posts about industry happenings just because you don't agree is the corporate equivalent of closing your eyes, covering your ears, and humming loudly.

Just because you can't see the very real opinions that people have, doesn't mean they don't exist.  All you're doing is deluding yourself into believing that you are in control of your brand and its message.  Let me clear it up for you.

You're not.

If your PR Agency tells you that you can control your brand's image and message by censoring people or ignoring public opinion, then...

Fire them.


Second of all, to think that asking employees to remove posts or otherwise limit their speech will somehow abate the PUBLIC'S negative opinion of something your company is doing or has done is to fundamentally NOT get how social media works.  If your PR Agency recommends, for example, policing employees' personal blogs, planting positive commenters on your social media feeds, or trying to bury negative commentary with fluff content then, again...

Fire them.


Not only are they going to categorically fubar your social media efforts, but it's probably a sign they don't know much about technology in general.

Finally, believe it or not, if your employees are writing about something going on in your industry that is controversial it is a good sign.  It means they give a damn.  And if the public sees that your employees give a damn, then they'll give a damn too.  That said, there is no faster way to make an employee stop caring, than to tell him to shut his mouth.

So the next time you are tempted to tell an employee they have to delete a tweet, or take down a blog, ask yourself this question:

Am I mad, because he wrote it? Or am I mad because it's true?

If what the employee wrote was true and fair, then your time would be better spent fixing what they are writing about than making them take their post down.  If your PR agency advised you to ask them to take it down, guessed it...

Fire them.


Find a PR company that will spend the very expensive time you're paying them for to do something more productive than web stalking your employees and getting their panties in a bunch over a message they're obviously failing to counter.

Could Google legally have fired the mouthy programmer?  Probably.  But all that would have accomplished was ensuring that everything the programmer continued to write was negative, added fuel to the public fire, and STILL not fixed the issues with the service platforms.  It also probably would have caused the programmer to get snatched up by a company interested in employing someone who obviously knew what they were talking about, while Google would have effectively put up an electric fence between themselves and any knowledgable, creative, expressive, and caring potential job candidate within a 1,000 miles of Silicon Valley.

Of course, you could be like those other large, successful companies that DO censor their staff and employ PR agencies that use denial and cover up tactics to build their brand.


I can't think of any....


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