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tony wilson

Several times a year, I deliver a lecture about online reputation management to businesses, schools, universities, lawyers and government organizations. It's an area that continues to fascinate me, especially in light of the well-publicized problems that arise when people act before they turn on their brains.

Ridiculous tweets and Facebook updates can not only damage reputations, but cost the offenders their jobs, customers or voters, lending credence to the saying: a reputation takes a lifetime to develop and an instant to destroy.

The media is filled with examples of teens and twenty-somethings bragging about drinking, debauchery and even criminal activity. One of the best examples was the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver in 2011, where social media updates and photographs landed some of the offenders in the crowbar hotel. Others were summarily fired from their jobs. Some of the posts and photographs were made by the offenders themselves. Others were shared, then re-shared. Once evidence of bad behaviour goes viral, there seems to be no stopping where it will go and who will see it.

Canada's business schools and law schools regularly remind their new students to clean up their Facebook pages and not to post drunk or otherwise questionable pictures of themselves because their future employers will be looking. We do. And we judge.

For whatever reason, people seem to forget that employers, co-workers and managers are on social media as well and unless one's privacy settings are set to 'high', those employers, co-workers and managers may be able to access what someone has posted on various platforms and make judgements about whether to hire or fire that person. And because a photograph of questionable conduct, a video, or an insensitive update can be shared (and re-shared) by others with one click, it's never been easier to advertise bad behaviour and shame the offender. In fact, one can say that where there's bad behavior, it will always find its way on to the Internet, and sometimes the nightly news.

Business is coming to grips with the issue in some ways. Many have created social media policies for their employees, making it clear within the employment contract that disparaging ones employer, managers co-employees or indeed, the brand, may lead to dismissal. Moreover, pseudonyms won't protect someone in circumstances where there has been a defamation, or harassment. The case law in this area generally supports termination for cause in circumstances where managers or co-employees have been defamed or harassed on social media by an employee.

Still, even the people who should know better, don't. For example, Ottawa-area liberal candidate Jack Uppal posted a comparison between men and women on Facebook on Jan. 30 that hasn't done wonderful things for his reputation, particularly among women. He said: "If a woman has a lot of problems, her brain cannot classify the problems", and went on to say that women can't read maps easily. "For them it is just a dump of lines on a paper." He's been forced to apologize.

When I speak on this topic, I always remind people that every smartphone is a camera and every microphone as live. I remind people of the trouble that Jean Chrétien got in when he didn't realize that Radio Canada was still recording a conversation he was having about corruption in American politics at a NATO conference. Or when French President Jacques Chirac was recorded saying "the only thing the English have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease". Or Olympian Michael Phelps having his photograph taken in inhaling from a bong, and losing his lucrative endorsement contract with Kellogg's when the photograph hit the front page the newspapers.

Bad behavior will be exposed on social media whenever possible, and more often than not, it's on YouTube. In mid-April, passenger on an Air Canada flight to Toronto from Abbotsford filmed baggage handlers dropping suitcases into a bin 15 feet beneath the passenger door. The video has been seen over 3 million times since it was posted on April 17 of this year. The two baggage handlers responsible for throwing the bags have been fired, and Air Canada has gone into public relations overload to apologize to its customers about the incident.

The RCMP is still suffering from the damage to its reputation when Polish immigrant Robert Dziekański was wrongly tasered by RCMP officers at Vancouver international Airport in 2007 and died. The entire incident was filmed by a bystander and went viral.

By far, one of the most famous displays of the power of social media in the corporate environment was musician Dave Carroll's experience with United Airlines in 2008. The airline's baggage handlers broke his $3,500 guitar, and United wasn't prepared to do anything about it despite repeated requests. So he wrote a protest song with his band Sons of Maxwell called "United breaks Guitars", posted it to YouTube and made United Airlines look like insensitive corporate bunglers. The video has been seen by almost 14 million people on YouTube alone. United Airlines stock price declined within four days of the video going public, some would say, as a result of damaging video and the public relations fiasco.

I'm sure Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, didn't think that he was being recorded when he told his girlfriend not to go to games with black men; something that has led to him being banned for life by the NBA, a $2.5-million fine and an order by the NBA forcing him to sell the team. But once the recording got out, it went viral on social media. Despite his reprehensible comments, this begs the question: are we always being recorded now? Will our private behaviour find its way on social media?

Anyone involved in reputation management, public relations and brand management has to be concerned about this, particularly with new technology that can record video or audio on a regular basis, such as Google Glass or Narrative Clip; the latter being a small Triscuit size camera that takes a picture every 30 seconds and is a lot less conspicuous than Google Glass.

These new recording technologies will not only mean that every smartphone is a camera and every microphone is live, but that all behaviour is recordable. And if it's bad enough, it will find its way around the Internet and the news, keeping people in the reputation management business busy.

Tony Wilson is a franchising, licensing and intellectual property lawyer at Boughton Law Corp. in Vancouver, he is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University (SFU), and he is the author of two books: Manage Your Online Reputation, and Buying a Franchise in Canada. His opinions do not reflect those of the Law Society of British Columbia, SFU or any other organization.

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