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The media dance takes two to tango

Posted on June 22, 2016 by Taber Times

By Trevor Busch
Taber Times
tbusch@tabertimes.com

All of us, at one point or another in our lives, have probably said something that in retrospect might not have been the most intelligent comment. Usually this involves nothing more than attempting to insert one’s foot even further into your mouth than ever before, coupled to a garbled apology, before passing into the ranks of the boorish and uncouth.

Today’s social media universe precludes that outcome if you were unwise enough to post it online, and one suspects that the recent pariah of the Town of Taber, Tom Moffatt — whose “karmic” tweet about the Fort McMurray wildfire showered heaps of derision on his employer and his NDP affiliations, not to mention himself — still wishes he had that right click of his mouse back when he posted the comment back in early May. While some people might enjoy their 15 minutes of fame, Moffatt’s 15 minutes of infamy will probably follow the town manager around for the rest of his life.

While tempted to suggest that might be a measure of poetic justice — there is a virtual legion of Moffatt-haters out there who might not put it anywhere near as tactfully — considering the profession I represent, we still believe anyone has the right to say virtually anything they want — be it stupid, offensive, or otherwise — without being subject to censure or persecution. That being said, it doesn’t mean what Moffatt chose to post in any way reflects our own viewpoint on the issue, or wasn’t highly offensive to thousands of evacuees and Albertans from border to border, and even Canadians from coast to coast.

It does bring in to question, however, how much an employee must be aware of the consequences of social media in the 21st century. While not disregarding an individual’s right to freedom of speech, it is indeed a strong argument to suggest that an employer should have some form of recourse in the case of an employee who might post anything of a hateful or controversial nature which might reflect negatively on that organization — even if, in some cases, they make those comments on their private accounts in off-work hours. Should they be fired for those comments? Should you be subjected to another degree of retribution if you work for a public organization as opposed to a private one? More questions. But in the case of Tom Moffatt, we have a comment posted online that in no way was critical of his employer, or even southern Alberta in general for that matter. But his employer experienced a backlash nonetheless, which is contributing to a growing perception in Canada about where an employee’s rights should end and an employer’s begin.

Still, it is hard not to conclude this might be a slippery slope. If an employer eventually holds all the cards regarding what an individual can and can’t say, we will have lost our ability in a free society to express ourselves. As in all things, striking the right balance will be key.
Swinging the pendulum too far in either direction will only create further problems along the line of the age-old battle between individual rights and the rights of the collective majority.

Social media, on the other hand — for those avidly dedicated, and even those who are not — has already eroded privacy to a degree that has now become the commonplace status quo. It also tends to blur lines regarding who or what cause you may be representing. In Moffatt’s case, was he representing the town? The provincial NDP? Climate change activists? Himself? All of the above, or none?

And one important thing to note is that the outright hatred and even invocations to violence — much of it expressed on social media — advocated by others towards Moffatt in the wake of his comment is interesting considering why and how they were expressing themselves. Is it not ironic to call for a man’s head — perhaps literally in some cases — via a social media venue that disseminated the comment in the first place? Is what the “haters” were expressing toward Moffatt any better or worse that what Moffatt stated in the first place? Ample room for argument on that front.

Regardless of Moffatt’s motivations, town council’s knee-jerk reaction to the situation by suspending him pending the outcome of a social media investigation drew fierce criticism in many circles in the province, who pointed fingers at town council and alleged that body was making a shameless attempt to ameliorate their public relations situation by grossly overstepping their authority with regard to what amounts to a largely internal personnel issue.

At the time, town council chose to publicize their decision to suspend Moffatt, immediately posting the decision on the town’s website and notifying the media, in effect flogging the decision for all the public relations capital it could possibly garner. And garner attention it did — the story returned to the national spotlight, even though council offered no explanation for their actions beyond the short text of their decision.

Interestingly, this also appeared to be when many of the positive media winds that might have been blowing in the direction of the Town of Taber over the issue began to dissipate, replaced by a heavy degree of criticism in some quarters. This included publications as far afield as the Calgary Herald, who not long after posted a strongly-worded editorial lambasting town council for their willingness to bow to public pressure in an attempt to diffuse their own discomfort and personal distaste regarding the issue.
All of which confirms that when you attempt to dance with the media over a bed of hot coals, nine times out of ten you’ll be the one who ends up getting burned.

If there is one thing that journalists hold in contempt above almost anything else, it is those individuals and organizations that attempt to manipulate them for their own ends, but expect to not have the microscope of media scrutiny or criticism turned back on them.

And yet, every day displays more examples where that very same situation arises, and more often than not, ends up back-firing on the those who attempted to use the media to their own advantage. To assume that the media establishment is an easily-manipulated pack of grasping, semi-intelligent apes without the ability to foresee when someone is attempting to take advantage of them is almost a universal mistake.

Last week at town council’s June 13 regular council meeting, it was confirmed by administration that Moffatt’s suspension had since been lifted and the town manager had now quietly returned to work. When asked for comment on this decision, town council had nothing to say about it, essentially refusing to comment.

And while they no doubt perhaps wished that the issue would quietly die now that the crisis situation in Fort McMurray has passed, the decision to surreptitiously lift Moffatt’s suspension without comment (or consequence, we don’t know) virtually confirms that town council made their original decision out of the worst possible motivations. Whatever one might have thought about council’s original decision on May 6, they at least appeared willing to make a reactionary decision and stand by it.

Now, however, we know better. We know, for instance, that judging by the conclusion to the matter, council’s decision to suspend Moffatt was little more than an exercise in public relations. How could it not be with all the bluster and now no follow-through? If you were going to take the action to suspend someone in the first place — regardless of what might have motivated you — and take your own step of publicizing that decision in order to assuage enraged segments of the public, you can’t simply sweep that decision back under the rug once the media hype has died down and still claim that you were acting out of the best possible motivations. You can’t have you cake, and eat it, too.

It would be hard now for town council to avoid or answer the criticism that when the public and media scrutiny reached a white-hot intensity, they were perfectly willing to take advantage of the situation for their own ends — namely an attempt to diffuse it by appearing to come down hard on an offending employee — but now that the issue has to large degree “blown over” in the sights of the media, they’d rather see it go away. Unfortunately, you can’t have things both ways.

To now avoid the consequences of their decision by hiding behind an “internal personnel issue” — after they took the step to suspend the man themselves and parade it before the public — should lead many to seriously question their courage in standing behind their own convictions.

All of which illustrates the dangers of attempting to use the media to your own advantage, as well as a selective approach to public relations. Both almost exclusively lead to the same conclusions — bad publicity.

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