in defence of sam masters - we ALL get social media wrong

Sometimes things go wrong online. Sometimes. Should you always face the door at the first mistake?

by Emily Turner

Sam Masters, a Lambeth Council press officer, has left his post after posting on Twitter that he thinks Streatham, the area he looks after, should be napalmed.

He Tweeted, “Having spent a considerable amount of time in Streatham, my solutions for supporting the High Road mostly involve napalm.”

Local business leaders and MPs complained and Masters quit. But was the end result, the right result? Should Masters have felt he had no option but to leave? Was quitting an appropriate response to the Tweet content? Should it always be one strike and you are out?

What we need to consider is when are employees entitled to their own personal views and opinions, and when is it safe to express them? It is reported that he used his personal Twitter account and his bio did not mention where he worked and stated that his views were not that of his employer.

As we share more across an increasing number of platforms, should we accept that we are humans and not robots? Do we need to understand that we will all make a mistake by oversharing on social media? When we get frustrated, angry or upset, we want to offload or seek comfort from others. Sometimes that will annoy other people and possible stray into the unprofessional.

Is it realistic to expect that we can stay professional on duty and off duty on social media for the rest of our working life? Perhaps it won’t be as public as the napalm Tweet, but we will all upset or annoy people following us at some point. Sometimes the fallout will be minor, but often it will have a consequence.

For younger people, the generation who will now be connected via social media to the people from primary school onwards, they need to be educated and supported as they pick their way through deciding what is appropriate to share in public.

The labour market could lose enormous potential and talent if the only way to deal with misguided or unwise sharings on social media is to force quit. Making mistakes is part of working life. I’ve made quite a few. I don’t really know anyone who hasn’t made mistakes at work. It’s all part of experience.

Here is a personal example for consideration. I worked for the police but was off duty when I witnessed a stabbing. I felt compelled to assist, as my civic duty was riding high at the time. It was extremely upsetting. The scene was highly visible in a normally low crime area, with police vans, ambulances and a roped off crime scene.

I put on Facebook: “It’s good to know that when the shit hits the fan, the boys in blue come quickly and in large numbers. Well done!”

I am human. My adrenalin was riding at warp speed. I had just seen someone stabbed repeatedly taken off to hospital. I’ve written comms plans and statements about stabbings but I’ve not actually seen it happen in front of me before.

A local journalist was a contact on my Facebook and copied and pasted the status and sent it into my work pasted in an email with: “Doesn’t this person live in XXX? Has anything happened?”

Obviously, this didn’t go down very well and I had to hold myself to account. Did I have a right to share that information with my followers? Work felt that I was entitled to share the information as it was personal to me and I hadn’t gained the information from work. They felt I had been positive about work and professional in that I hadn’t shared any details about the actual event at a very upsetting time. But they asked me to remove any journalist followers.

I discussed the issue with the journalist. I felt they had broken a code of conduct too – that you should always protect your sources, whether you got the information from Facebook or down the pub. I felt that they could have got an answer to their question without cutting and pasting my Facebook status in an email, such as “Just checking to see if anything happened overnight in XXX?”

But of course the real lesson was to be learned by me and I removed all journalists from my Facebook account. When I left work I re-invited some of them back. Mainly because I’ve built up a relationship with many of them during the last ten years and I enjoy their posts and interacting with them outside of work constraints.

When we look at examples, such as Sam Masters, we need to remember that it is difficult to moderate, modify and censor yourself on social media 24/7 for your entire working life.

Emily Turner is a former journalist and media manager and founded where this blog was first posted.

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