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Freedom of Speech vs. Employee Social Media

In today’s digital environment, it’s easier than ever to do some sleuthing and find out almost anything about any given individual. This includes where that person works. And whether it’s fair or not, a workplace can obtain a certain reputation based on its employees’ social media behaviors. Let’s look at ESPN as an example.

A few years ago, in a push to re-establish itself in a rapidly changing media environment, ESPN’s then-president John Skipper oversaw a shakeup to their programming. This caused their flagship show since the network’s inception, SportsCenter, rebranding slightly as more personality-driven.

ESPN found that the more successful shows during that time were shows that “embraced debate,”; featuring pundits and hosts arguing over the major sports and pop culture subjects of the day.

Straight forward news and game highlights, which had been the network’s bread and butter for decades, were in low demand. So, it made sense to try to inject some of the “debate” culture in their stodgier and more even-keeled news programming, like SportsCenter.

The experiment yielded mixed results.

The late-night version of the program, long it’s most successful dating back to the 90s when it made celebrities out of Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann, fared well as a program centered on Scott Van Pelt.

But the evening edition, which in the 2000s surged in popularity as an important lead-in to live game coverage struggled with its new hosts. Then came a tweet from one of the hosts, which offered sharp political criticism.

All of a sudden, the sports network was now in the middle of an intense political conversation. Some people called for the then- ESPN President John Skipper to set a precedent by firing the infringing host. Others felt it was a violation of the host’s freedom of speech on their personal social platforms to punish them for voicing their opinion.

Despite that ESPN did have rules in place prohibiting political and controversial conversations from their hosts even on their own social media accounts, ESPN’s leadership choose to do nothing.

Ultimately, the host in question was let go, and the then-president of the company followed shortly thereafter.

Today, the new President of ESPN has a steadfast rule of non-political speech. So far, ratings and stability have proven that he’s right.

We exist in a place in time where any person can create a platform for themselves using social media. Some would argue that it’s a right to be able to speak your mind when you’d like to and how you’d like to.

To some degree, you might be correct.

But, as a small business owner, you have to consider what you’d like your platform on social to be known for - and that extends to people who are digitally associated with you.

We’ve gone over, in the past, how quickly an errant employee post can quickly become a public relations nightmare for you and your business. Consider creating a social media policy for you, your business and for those who work for you and are digitally associated with your business.

This way, whether your policy leans toward being more lenient or very tightly controlling, there’s no questioning where you stand and what you expect from people posting on yourself behalf - or posting on their own.

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