A little over 10 years ago, during a Davis Cup trip to Zimbabwe, the U.S. team passed a street in front of Robert Mugabe’s palace. In big letters there was a warning; “If you take a photo on this street you will be shot.” No one took pictures. Yes that is extreme, but it is a pretty clear way to set ground rules that all understood.
A few weeks ago one of our Columbia classes taught by Neal Pilson had an open invite for staff, alumni, current students and potential students to come in and listen to a q and a with ESPN President John Skipper. The room was filled to listen to Skipper talk about his days in publishing, the challenges of having launched ESPN.com, and a host of anecdotes about life, sports business, broadcasting and the like. Lots of little tidbits that could have made their way out of the room. Nothing overtly controversial, but very insightful from a man who is usually frank and direct but willing to give of his time. As the room filled to capacity, several young socially engaged students prepped their mobile devices for a tweet or two. After all, this is the era of information, and Skipper and Pilson were ready to share. However to the disappointment of some at least, the ground rules were very carefully planned out. No tweeting, posting or recording could take place, in order to keep the session for those invited guests. The result? An open, frank discussion that respected the speakers wishes and a solid time was had by all. The ground rules were set, and the respect was in place.
Juxtapose that discussion, where the rules were set, to a pair of other recent incidents, one involving the Boston Red Sox and President Barack Obama and the other involving Rutgers Athletic Director Julie Hermann. In the first case, POTUS and David Ortiz willingly posed for a selfie that one of Ortiz’s sponsors, Samsung, turned into a marketing push without the consent of the President in any way. Then the Newark Star Ledger broke a story where Hermann was quoted while speaking to a student group at Rutgers as saying she hoped the paper, which had just gone through massive layoffs and is perhaps the media outlet that covers activities on the campus, would essentially go out of business. Whether it was meant sarcastically, or was even taken slightly out of context, it created a firestorm again with the media around the Scarlet Knights. The result? More brand damage and distraction for Rutgers.
What do all four anecdotes show? Pretty simple. We live in an age where media of all kinds is available for consumption willingly or unwillingly, and unless one takes the proper steps to guard against public-facing statements or information, as Skipper did, then anyone is fair game. Was the selfie with Ortiz innocent on the part of the President and Big Papi? Probably. Was there someone on the savvy marketing side waiting or planning to take advantage of the innocent moment? Seems so. In Hermann’s case, was she trying to make news in a frank discussion with students? Probably not. Did she set herself up for an issue by not setting ground rules prior, as happened at Columbia. Looks like that is the case. Now this is not to say setting ground rules can always lead to people acting honorably or responsibly. The thought of embargoes on news stories seem to be more and more a thing of the past, with media outlets scrambling to break news on any platform willing to sometimes ask forgiveness now more than permission, and a tweet, no matter how innocent, just seconds before a story breaks can have career implications for all involved. Does the Ortiz incident mean that events at White House or other official gatherings will now be like some elite weddings or courtrooms, where any mobile devices need to be confiscated to avoid potential conflict? Could be. We did live in a world not too long ago where images were not captured on phones, they were done by cameras on film and then shared by those who wanted those images distributed and we all seemed fine with it. Taking temptation away can have its benefits in such cases, as can very clear ground rules. The more you think and know your audience, the better off all will be. Image creation and media consumption are great, and by no means should the free flow of ideas be curtailed in most cases. However the higher the image the higher the risk, as we saw again this week, both in DC and New Brunswick. Without setting the rules going in, all bets are off coming out and a news cycle, no matter how innocent or unintentional begins and creates even more distractions for the parties involved.