Social media can bite you — Just ask Steve Rubel

rubel1.jpgSteve Rubel, top PR blogger and Edelman SVP, proved last week he’s human. I prove the same thing 3-4 times a day, but I don’t have a Top-200 Technorati ranking to worry about.

When I screw up, no one cares. When Steve screws up, the whole PR blogosphere has a front-row seat. Steve, it may seem like I’m piling on here, but I’m just doing the professor thing and showing my readers (many of ’em students) how social media can bite you in the ass — even when you’re on top of your game.

Steve’s trouble grew from a message posted to Twitter, the social network that “takes instant messaging to an extreme.” In a hasty post, Steve said: “PC Mag is another. I have a free sub but it goes in the trash,”

Jim Louderback, PC‘s editor in chief, took offense and fired back with this guest editorial on the Strumpette blog. Here’s an excerpt to give you the flavor:

…I started thinking about what this means for our relationship with Edelman. One of the company’s top execs had stated, in a public forum, that my magazine (and by extension, my audience) was useless to him. He wasn’t even interested in seeing whether we’d covered one of his clients. Did the rest of Edelman think like Steve? Were we no better than fishwrap to the entire company?

Should I instruct the staff to avoid covering Edelman’s clients? Ignore their requests for meetings, reviews and news stories? Blacklist the “Edelman.com” email domain in our exchange servers, effectively turning their requests into spam? If we’re not relevant to Edelman’s employees, then how could we be relevant to their clients?

Ouch! I told you that blogsphere would bite you.

Context: Strumpette loves taking shots at Steve Rubel — or in this case, letting others do it. The pseudonymous Amanda Chapel views Steve a social-media zealot with tunnel vision. Steve’s readers see him as a guru. Steve’s Technorati ranking today is 128; Strumpette’s is 9,010.

The media relations lesson here is an obvious one. Don’t diss sources important to your clients — at least not where anyone can capture your words for the record. But the lesson in social media is a bit of a paradox.

The instantaneous nature of Twitter (this goes for MySpace, Facebook, and others) makes it easy and quick to share thoughts with your “network.” But too often, we don’t stop to think beyond that network. It’s just a conversation, right?

Because of his influence, Steve’s conversations on Twitter travel around the globe instantly. And people pay attention. Unlike the rest of us blogging schlubs, Steve has to be more cautious. And that “caution” flies in the face of the naked candor we often see, and treasure, in our favorite blogs.

Steve was simply being a blogger — posting thoughts for all to see. His comment was taken out of context and blown out of proportion, but it still damaged Edelman’s rep at PC Mag, at least in the short run. Strumpette’s satire on the matter drives the point home, again at Steve’s expense.

The paradox? Steve’s error was being honest when he really didn’t have to be. He put transparency ahead of discretion. We all do it, but most of us don’t have a global audience holding us accountable. Crazy stuff, this social media.

So I get to share this lesson about the unforgiving nature of the blogosphere. It’ll bite me someday, too — probably sooner than later.

Also, don’t ever forget that little white lies are wonderful tools of diplomacy. They’ve saved my bacon time and time again. What’s that? Oh, no, honey, you don’t look fat in that dress. You’re fabulous.

Hmmm. Maybe this transparency thing is overrated.

11 Responses to Social media can bite you — Just ask Steve Rubel

  1. Noah Grieco says:

    Is honesty to become the “path less followed”? Transparency and honesty are two well used tools in the PR practitioner’s belt; however, as with any device, they can cause damage when used carelessly. Rubel’s candor was undoubtedly careless, and damaging; however, a “white lie” is still a lie. The lesson to take away from all of this: PR professionals have a responsibility to consider how their actions and words may impact their client’s reputation, inside the office and out. This is especially true when engaging in the use of interactive or social media. Today’s technologies connect the communication dots in new ways – some are still being explored – taking gap spanning through uncharted territory. As with all things, the unknown can be both exciting and treacherous.

  2. Dear Bill,

    Respectfully, your “context” is a bit non sequitur that rises to distortion.

    Excuse me but…. we take shots at lots of people. Anyone who reads us knows that. That said, as KD Paine’s research will attest, Edelman is a leader in negatives among PR agencies on the Web. Such is the success of the Me2Revolution. As such, they are, and Rubel is especially, quite prolific in the material they provide us. We love ‘em!🙂

    As to your Technorati numbers… the 128 vs. 9,010 is just totally irrelevant. It’s also misleading. As there are presently in excess of 70 million blogs, both Strumpette and MicroPersuasion together rank in the top 1 percentile.

    Sincerely,

    Amanda Chapel
    Managing Editor
    Strumpette

  3. Bill Sledzik says:

    Amanda,

    My post neglected to say that I’m a regular Strumpette reader and that I enjoy the satire — even when it makes me cringe in empathy for those targeted. Of course, you know I’ve been up front about my fondness for your blog, even though every damn time I link to you, someone disconnects from me. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but as I said a few posts back, it just doesn’t matter.

    In the interest of transparency, I should probably have posted my own Technorati ranking (67,000 and change). That puts me way behind you and Steve, but still in the top 1% as well. So with that context, I guess you’re right. It’s irrelevant. Maybe we all are.

  4. Brian Wooley says:

    Bill,

    In your post about Steve Rubel, you wrote the following:

    “Unlike the rest of us blogging schlubs, Steve has to be more cautious. And that ‘caution’ flies in the face of the naked candor we often see, and treasure, in our favorite blogs.”

    Why does Rubel need to be more cautious? Isn’t that think-before-you-speak-lest-you-offend mentality the very thing you were lamenting would result from the firing of Don Imus?

    “While technically/legally you are correct, the firing of Don Imus will serve to supress [sic] speech in that folks will be less willing to express themselves for fear of offending certain persons or groups. While that’s that’s not entirely a bad thing, it remains a coercive influence. And in my book, coercion limits freedom.”

    By those standards, isn’t Rubel being coerced by PC magazine? Isn’t his caution actually a limit on his freedom of expression?

  5. Bill Sledzik says:

    Brian,

    I think your analogy holds up reasonably well, except on this one point: Steve offended someone upon whom his/Edelman’s livelihood depends day to day. Imus dissed folks who, for the most part, had never heard of him before the MSM blow-up. Both spoke on the record, so the evidence lives on for vultures like you and me to pick at. We can toss in the public airwaves argument for Imus, but it was MSNBC — a cable channel — that first threw him overboard, so I don’t buy that one.

    Both Steve and Imus are paying the price. But last I checked, Steve still has a job, and I don’t think anyone’s out to change that. In my mind, Steve’s miscue falls under the category of “shit happens.” He does occasionally piss people off, but unlike Imus, Steve doesn’t insult folks for a living.

    Of course, by this time next week no one’s gonna care. In fact, I’m not sure anybody does now. I was real late taking this one up. Just thought it was something my readers who don’t forage in the blogosphere might benefit from.

  6. Judy Gombita says:

    When I groaned at a colleague recently (a home-office consultant), “X, please don’t tell me you are Twittering, too.” I received the response, “Yes. I think of it as my virtual water cooler.”

    The thing is, even in a large office, one has to be careful what is talked about around the water cooler (or coffee machine), especially when it is a (negative) opinion about a work-related project or an individual.

    I avoid water-cooler gossip at work that is work related. I also make a point of not gossiping by e-mail (it’s way too “portable”). Those kind of conversations (because, yes, I’m not so virtuous as to never indulge in them) are one-on-one, preferably in-person or at a minimum by phone.

    I am utterly amazed why more Twitterers don’t exercise that same caution. Especially those consultants or agency folks who position themselves as PR, communications or social media subject experts.

  7. Brian Wooley says:

    I’m also not sure anyone cares right now. My actual concern over either case is minimal at best, and any reaction I’ve had has been geared toward responding to others’ responses. And so, Bill, here we are.

    I understand the point that you outlined about the respective offended parties; yes, they are not the same circumstances. Makes sense to me, unless Edelman’s been fielding a hoops squad, or Imus is working in PR. I do not, however, see what it has to do with my previous question–why does what you call coercion to suppress free expression on one hand come across as mere caution about candor on the other? How does one go from doleful alarms about limiting speech to blithe reminders to watch what you say?

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    Brian,

    Now that you’ve reframed it — I take it back. Your analogy doesn’t hold up. Steve erred in a business in which diplomacy and tact are central to the mission. Playing nice is part of the PR professional’s MO, as we’re consensus builders. Playing nice is not part of the blogger’s MO.

    Imus, on the other hand, is was a radio comic who made a living insulting people. It’s part of his schtick, and anyone who listened knew that. He can’t be a master of insults if he’s overly concerned with being sensitive, or if a censor has a finger on the dump button.

  9. Brian Wooley says:

    I find it funny that you keep referring to it as my analogy, considering that we’re talking about two comments you made. But for consistency’s sake, let’s look at my analogy in light what you’ve said here.

    Schtickmeister Imus, whom any reasonable person would take with several grains of salt, bounds over a line that he’s been hopscotching around for decades, gets his long-awaited comeuppance, and what’s nothing more than market forces exacting a toll gets termed a tragedy for free expression.

    A respected leader in a business, to use your words, in which diplomacy and tact are central to the mission, slags off an entire audience–but is merely seen to be guilty of an overabundance of ill-conceived candor.

    Imus spoke mostly for himself and mostly for entertainment’s sake. No one was hiring him for anything, but especially not for diplomacy, tact, or consensus building. Rubel, and by extension Edelman, are hired to represent those very things.

    You were right about one thing, Bill… the logic sure doesn’t hold up. Imus, for doing what he was hired to do, paid a larger price, and on a bigger stage–but what Rubel did was much worse because he was doing the exact opposite of what he was paid to do. It’s like I said about the “free speech” misnomer tossed around in the Imus case; it’s worse when you know better and you do it anyway.

  10. Kevin Zeise says:

    Chiming in a bit late, only because things have been a little hectic of late… and maybe I’m missing the point, but here’s my two cents….

    I’m quite frankly very torn by this discussion. My office has a very young (inexperienced) staffer, and one of the lessons I find myself repeating over and over to her is that she must be careful of the image she conveys while working an event in an official capacity. What does it say about Cornell University when she works at an event in blue jeans, a t-shirt and flip-flops? (For the record, that’s a I lesson learned while losing points for not wearing a suit for the PR Seminar presentation to the execs from Mr. Hero. Note to self: shirt & tie + dress pants does not equal a suit… got it!)

    But at the same time, where exactly is the line between ‘you’ the professional and ‘you’ the individual? Can a person not make any comment without it automatically being assumed that their entire organization feels the same way?

    I received my Kent State Magazine in the mail the other day, and honestly, I didn’t even open it before it got registered in the big blue filing cabinet (what can I say – if there’s something important concering PRKent, I’ll hear about it from you). Does that mean all my co-workers or all KSU alumni have the same feelings about their alumni newsletters? No, not at all.

    Frankly, I applaud Rubel for speaking honestly and openly about his opinions in an open forum. A major problem with message boards and social networking sites is too often people hide behind a shroud of anonymity, posting defamatory remarks without ever being called on it. I believe that if you make a comment in a public forum, you should expect to be held accountable for it – but unless you’re speaking in an official capacity (in Rubel’s case, for example, posting these comments on the company website), then your company’s position shouldn’t also be called into question.

  11. Bill Sledzik says:

    Not to worry, Kevin. This whole thread is late, but it’s also been frank, and that’s part of why we come to the social media. Brian is beating me up a bit in the previous comments. He’s made some great points (though his apples-to-oranges comparison of Rubel and Imus remains real shaky in my view), and I’ve tried to counter them. Point is, he’s in the conversation, and that’s what the medium is about.

    Blogs, message boards, et. al., thrive on candor, and on the absence of heirarchy. We’re all equal sitting at the keyboard. Most workplaces are the opposite.

    In my 15+ years in the corporate and agency worlds, I spent way too much time dancing around issues for fear of bruising an ego or, worse, getting on someone’s shit list. It made me less effective at times. But in the end, I survived long enough to move up the ladder and eventually become a senior counselor — a candid one at that.

    I’m kinda thankful we didn’t have social media in those days. I’d have jumped right in, and I’d have been in deep shit constantly. I’m too much of a wise ass. Steve Rubel may have bruised his reputation a bit last week, but let’s not forget that just a few years ago he was an unknown VP at Cooper Katz. Social media have been very very good to Steve.

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