Brands vs. personal identity on Twitter

Originally published in the Daily Maverick

Should people be suspended for having a terrible sense of humour? Or were Lance Witten and McIntosh Polela suspended because of terrible judgement instead? Both their own, in terms of what they found humorous, as well as on the part of their respective employers, who allowed themselves to be forced into action by the moralistic masses on social media.

Terrible judgement seems the more likely option, but it’s perhaps not only Polela and Witten who are guilty of it. They know that they are public figures, and they know that this makes them a target for the sort of finger wagging we seldom direct at our own behaviour. But do we – and their employers – have to enforce groupthink, or can we separate the brand from the individual?

In case you don’t know what these two did to deserve suspension (in the eyes of their employers, at least), Polela made a joke about prison rape on Twitter after Molemo “Jub Jub” Maarohanye was sentenced to prison for murder, and Witten made a joke (also on Twitter) about people “dying to see Linkin Park”.

Given that prison rape is reportedly a significant problem in South African jails, and that Florentina Heaven-Popa died after scaffolding collapsed on her and others at the Cape Town Linkin Park concert last week, these jokes were certainly in very poor taste.

However, having poor taste is something that’s only directly relevant to people who work in fashion, food, or whatever areas involve being an authority on discerning what the most desirable product on offer might be in a given situation. Suspending someone for having poor taste in humour – for saying something that many would find offensive – makes the statement that we must all have the same values, and that dissenting from those values is not permissible.

It also makes the statement that we (as a company) don’t trust our customers to be able to distinguish between our employees as people and the company as a whole. This is where one has to consider the possibility that their respective employers are also guilty of poor judgement, in that they’ve played a part in letting hyperbole win, and in helping to feed an appetite for sensation that we should instead be doing our best to quell.

One reason that social media policies are necessary is that people seem incapable of realising that what you say on Twitter or Facebook can reflect negatively on your employers. Another reason that social media policies are necessary is because employers are willing to bow to the demands of the pitchfork-wielding public, who make threats of boycotts over every perceived slight. And then, forget about it the next week, when some new offence is paraded in front of them through a hyperbolic headline.

Seriously – how often have you heard of someone who was not killed “execution style”? When last was a person or a report “criticised” or “challenged” rather than “slammed”? And why can’t eNCA have the option of saying, “Lance Witten might be a tosspot, sure, and he really shouldn’t have made that joke. So ‘unfriend’ him if you like, but he works for us as a sports anchor, and he’s good enough at that that we see no reason to suspend him”.

They can’t have that option because we don’t allow them that option. Our thirst for sensation, and our inability to separate the various roles that people perform in professional and private lives, makes it impossible for a company to say that perfection is an unreasonable standard to expect from our employees, and that there are other ways of distancing yourself from comments or from employees than by suspending or firing those employees.

All that we are doing is satisfying the desire for some public flogging, after all. The idea that anyone learns any sort of lesson here (besides the lesson of “keep your views to yourself”) is implausible. Because we always forget, and because all that’s necessary to speed up our forgetting is a brief period of suspension, a public apology, and some new distraction – which is usefully always around the corner.

And so it goes, again and again, and the main loser is our sense of perspective. Yes, jokes can be offensive. But Witten, Polela – or you, or me – won’t stop making offensive jokes, or come to agree with each other on which jokes are permissible or not as a result of suspensions like these. We’ll just tell the same jokes, more privately, while our public spaces become more homogenised, and thus (one suspects the thinking goes) “safer”.

Companies must, of necessity, have an interest in their brand and how the market perceives it. This would certainly entail avoiding any real scandals, especially those perpetrated by senior figures in that company. But if reputational harm comes to implicate every tweet of every employee, there’s little chance of preserving reputation.

It’s become a truism to say that the brand and the person can’t be separated – but that isn’t necessarily because it’s true. One possible social media policy doesn’t seem to attract the attention it seems to deserve, and it would go something like this:

Our company values are x. While we try to hire people who share those values, there are also other job requirements that sometimes have an equal or higher priority. So, unless informed otherwise, please assume that individuals are responsible for their own comments on social media, and that none of their comments should be understood as expressing the company’s views.

We don’t believe that we are the best judges of what should be a universal morality. We respect our customers enough to want to avoid the paternalism of assuming that they are incapable of telling difference between individual employees and us. And finally, we respect our customers too much to think that they need our protection from things they might find offensive.  Have a nice day.

Postscript: Via 6000, here’s an example of sanity prevailing in this area. The Christian whose case is discussed in the article is of course a homophobe and a bigot, and that’s not good. But he’s allowed to be those things, especially on his own time.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.