EpiRen and Our Failure to Make Rules

As some of you know, I used to blog using a
pseudonym
. I did it for many
reasons, chief among them a fear that in the absence of a realistic,
well-considered and comprehensive social media and public
communication policy by my employer, my posts could be used against me
and place myself and my employer in a sticky situation. In the three
years since making that decision, a best practice began to emerge
around the country regarding the personal use of social media networks
and how it affected, or intersected, with one’s career and workplace.
(I say best practice very specifically, because this is not something
written well anywhere—least of all in case law.) Due to a variety of
circumstances, one among them this emerging best practice, I dropped
my pseudonym and began writing as myself. The rewards have been
greater than I could have imagined, yet the worry that surfaces each
time I press, “Post,” is palpable.

I bring up this little history lesson because a good Twitter-friend of
mine, René Najera (@EpiRen of Twitter-fame), has been slapped on the
wrist by his employer as a direct result of his online activities.
(Thank you to my good, real-life-friend James
Hamilton
for the heads up.) As I
read the article on
René
,
I couldn’t help but relive all of the arguments that caused me to post
pseudonymously, and fret about the damage I may have already done to
my future.

René was an epidemiology god on Twitter, regularly holding
“Epidemiology Night School,” and vociferously arguing for the cause of
childhood immunization (and indeed vaccination in general). All of
that has ended now, as his employer has—as part of his
agreement—forbade him from all social networking activity related to
public health. It seems that, as part of his vociferous defense, he
participated in a discussion that reached a point where someone
complained of his activities to his employer. (Seriously, I rewrote
that sentence like four times. That’s the most even-handed way I can
put it.) Because René wrote using his real name and it wasn’t hard to
figure out who his employer was, making the complaint was easy. Much
like it would be for me. And, again with the worry.

Today’s little story leads me to a shortcoming that I’ve noticed in my
posts on the need for government agencies, and private industry, to
confront the new reality that social media has forced upon us all. The
rules still remain largely unwritten, and in the absence of good
rules, capricious reactions to poor judgements and complaints will
blindly lead us—eventually—to common-sensical rules. But in the
meantime, folks like René risk getting their careers derailed.

The shortcoming that I feel I have is that I get haughty. I say things
like, “Lead, follow, or get run the hell over.” And I believe that
someday public agencies will get it and move into the twenty-first
century, or they’ll be recognized as dinosaurs and cast aside. The
problem is that this agencies are full of people who forgo the money
of private enterprise due SOLELY to their passion for the work they
do. They believe in it to their core (much like René), and are willing
to tell the world about it. Why should these people, your best
advocates, have to walk the razor’s edge until some executive gets his
head out of the sand and makes some rules? Why my blasé stance? (Could
it be my positivist approach satisfies my need to believe that should
the hammer come down on me, my executive will support the work I do?
Not entirely smart, and not good for everyone else in my position, or
René’s.)

So, my charge to you today is to push for some common-sensical, EASY,
rules on social media usage in the workplace. I’ve got a few PIOs
reading this blog, and you guys and gals are perfect to advance this
work. If you’re not a PIO, you probably know one, and I ask that you
forward this along to them.

What should a good social media policy encompass? Well, start here:
the Online Database of Social Media
Policies
. Browse
through and see what others have done.

Then consider your policy over the long-term. While social media is
new and fancy right now, it will soon be everywhere and part and
parcel of nearly everyone’s lives. Will your policy hold up in that
world? Does it understand that public speech these days does not
involve a soapbox and a dozen listeners, but instead a comment box and
millions of listeners? (And everyone in your legal department’s
sphincter just tightened.)

Also consider, though, what is the difference between a Facebook post
(complaining about work) and pamphleting (some racist screed)? Is it
the method or the message that you should be looking at?

Finally, is it prudent to assume that all of the communications coming
out of your department is controlled by your communications office?
What does your janitor’s MySpace page say about your “mission?” Some
of my background research on that spokesperson
post
I put up
this week congratulated one agency for getting their door people and
security folks through media training.

Think of it this way, the face of your agency is no longer just the
PIO and Director. It’s now each and every employee. And until we set
some ground rules, folks may potentially reflect poorly on our agency
(wittingly or unwittingly), with either no recourse or a vastly
overblown hand-smack.

This needs to be a priority, lest we have other dedicated, passionate
people like René become discouraged and move out of public service.

If you’d like to know more about the ongoing saga, the scienceblogging
field has seemingly exploding in René’s defense. Already two of the
top ten Google results for “EpiRen” include posts on the situation,
like this one.

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3 thoughts on “EpiRen and Our Failure to Make Rules

  1. It is my belief that the covert and overt efforts to censor government employees is a mistake. As long as they are exercising !st Amendment rights on their own time and cost and make clear they are expressing personal views not the views of their department or agency or official views life would be better for all. Apparently the position above which in my view is the only legal and Constitutional one is just not going to fly with those tempted to control information in government agencies. So until the tension is resolved by SCOTUS the willing and able and knowledgable will continue to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

  2. Some might be unaware that some protections do exist when federal employees are responding to Congressional inquiries.

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