PR ramblings: The consequences of free speech

Last week, two of my Facebook friends joined “cause” groups on the social-networking site. One signed up for “DEFEAT Proposition 8,” the other enlisted with, “Stop Abortion!” I have a diverse group of online pals.

While the Internet is a great place for self expression, how often do you consider the consequences of flashing your politics in public? After all, people judge us by the company we keep — in the office, in the community and online.

cooperarmsIt was Dan Cooper who got me thinking about the consequences of free speech. Until a few weeks ago Dan was president and CEO of Cooper Firearms of Montana, a manufacturer of high-end rifles used by discerning sportsmen. But Dan also was a supporter of Barack Obama, and he said so publicly. I suspect many of you did the same.

Dan’s public endorsement of the Democratic candidate became his “career ending move.” His support for Obama sparked a blowup in the gun blogs and inflamed the passions of rapid gun-rights groups like the NRA and those who align with it. Some called for a boycott of Cooper Arms, incensed that its CEO would dare support a candidate who has supported gun control.

Not wanting to hurt the company or those who work for it, Cooper opted to resign his post.


Dan’s fate seems unfair to most rational beings, but it illustrates a lesson that too may have yet to learn: Free speech isn’t free. It comes with consequences, many of them harsh and unjust.

We should all support Dan Cooper’s right to express his views on any issue he chooses. But Dan — you should have kept this one to yourself. You had to know it would inflame the gun-rights people, many of whom are your customers. Surely you know, after 50 years in the firearms trade, how little it takes to set them off. If you’ve forgotten, ask legendary hunter and sportsman Jim Zumbo. He’ll tell you.

The folks who lead and influence discussions in the firearms world can hurt you and hurt you bad. They have a grassroots army that can muster for battle faster than most of us can tie our shoes. They’re rabid, single-issue voters who worship at the altar of the 2nd Amendment. They will beat you, Dan. No, they did beat you, just as they beat Zumbo. Point is, when we put our biases and opinions on the record, we must accept the consequences, no matter how unjust those consequences may seem.

There’s a public relations lesson here, and it’s more important than ever in the digital age: You cannot separate your personal and your business life. You must assume that all we say and do will be recorded for public inspection.

My Facebook friend who joined “Defeat Proposition 8,” has etched her position into the digital record. She has stated her support for gay marriage in a country where a majority of people feel otherwise. Some of those people may one day be her bosses and her clients.

While I agree with her position on Prop 8, my opinion on gay rights won’t impact my career. I’m dug in at Kent State, and I have tenure. (OK, the Religious Right says I may burn in hell for siding with the “queers,” but I’ll take my chances.)

Were I representing clients or speaking for them, I wouldn’t be telling you for whom I voted or for which groups I have sympathies. I’d vote the same way, for sure. But no one on Facebook would read about it.

For someone who spends half his life in the online world, I guess I’m kind of old fashioned. I still adhere to the  adage, “It’s not polite to discuss politics and religion.”

Disclosure: I’m a gun owner, NRA member and defender of the right to keep and bear arms. I also voted for Barack Obama. I don’t plan to support his gun control proposals, but I do like this guy — a lot. He’s the real deal, or we’d best hope he is.


9 Responses to PR ramblings: The consequences of free speech

  1. Eric says:

    Excellent post and entirely appropriate for the times. I’ve been on Facebook for a little less than a year now. I’ve seen how putting your beliefs and opinions out there for all to see can ruin (and in some cases actually strengthen) old relationships. You definitely take a chance by putting it all out there.

    I am glad to see that someone recognizes that while the 1st Amendment is a pretty cool thing, there are some consequences to taking advantage of it.

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    As more of my baby boomer friends jump into social media, they’re bringing with them some pre-digital values. That’s not such a bad thing, as it could restore some much-needed modesty to this space. Of course, the Dan Cooper case has little to do with social media. SM is simply the tool Dan’s detractors have used to pile on.

    I’m sorry the pro-gun lobby can’t separate Dan Cooper’s political opinions from the quality firearms he makes and markets. But Dan should have anticipated the blowup, and with the help of intelligent PR counsel, he likely would have. In the end, no matter what Dan Cooper did or said, Montana was destined to be a “red” state. In certain contexts, some things are best left unsaid.

  3. Bill, I have been wondering about this for the entire election cycle. There are quite a few social media practitioners who were very public about their support for one candidate or another. My background is in politics, but I rarely provide detail as to which party I worked for (when asked, I’ll certainly tell people, I just don’t offer it up). I discovered a long time ago that people feel very comfortable making all kinds of assumptions about you based on that little label–R or D.

    For the record, I’m a registered Independent, and list my politics as “other” on Facebook. My opinions are fairly wide-ranging, neither party really wants me. 😉

    Great post.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    It’s true that most people volunteer far more about themselves online than they would in person, and I am certainly no exception. I do it b/c it helps me build the online persona (i.e., it’s part of the shtick), but also because it really can’t hurt me professionally because of where I sit.

    Another worry — and I voiced it after spending election night on Twitter — is that social media folks tend to flock together based on their worldviews. This leads us, sometimes, to the misguided notion that most of the world agrees with us. That ain’t always the case.

    Facebook profile lists my affiliation as the “Dead Skunk Party.” Like the pole cat in Louden Wainwright’song, my political views are “in the middle of the road, stinkin’ to high heaven.” So far, I’m the only member!

  5. Evan Roberts says:

    I have found one of the best ways to deal with groups like this is the “Ignore” option! I certainly had Obama groups on facebook, once I was sure I was voting for him, but my political leanings are moderate. I think joining hot topic groups would definitely be more of a problem for older fbook users, because they are more likely to take joining such a group out of perspective. I may be wrong but I feel like Millenial users don’t put as much weight on groups, but instead focus on pictures, fan pages, and the personal info part of fbook. Those things are done specifically by the person, where as a group is usually made by someone else, and while you may agree with one thing said, a lot of things about the group you might not agree with, but you can’t control that stuff. Great Post though, because if bosses are thinking this way, we’ve got some fbook spring cleaning to do!

  6. Allison says:

    It’s a struggle to create a truthful online identity and keep certain things private for those who view our profiles in the professional world. I can’t tell you how many times I’m untagging myself or not joining groups because I wonder who else is viewing my profile. I even give extra thought to what items I post and don’t post.

  7. Christina Klenotic says:

    Hey Bill,

    I pick and choose which groups to affiliate myself with on Facebook because it is a public domain. “Defeat Proposition 8” was one I couldn’t pass up, and I don’t worry about the repercussions of digitally expressing this value. I have a wide range of clients and friends, and if I lose business or friendships over this belief, then I believe those people are worse off, not me. I’d rather support my family and friends in their quest for equality than people who would write me off for expressing a single belief.

    Thanks, as always, for the engaging discussion!

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for dropping in, Christina. You express a value that I hear more an more often from the younger professionals, and that pleases me. One way to ensure the ethical practice of public relations is to have practitioners who are unwilling to compromise core beliefs in exchange for the fees our clients pay. We should be free to express ourselves without it posing a threat to our professional well being.

    Dan Cooper is a sportsman and gunsmith who found himself vilified by a rather sinister gun-rights movement. He’s a good guy who was placed in an untenable position. It cost him his job, but it could also cost his company a lot of business — and it may still. It’s one of those times when you don’t get to have a private and a personal life. Sort of like dancing with the devil.

  9. […] On the Tough Sledding blog, I read a post about the Consequences of Free Speech. […]

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