Oracle fires employee after Ad Age interview

Jill Rowley says she was fired for violating Oracle’s social media policy by talking to a reporter about Oracle’s initiative to train salesmen to use Twitter.

Saleswoman Jill Rowley says Oracle fired her for violating the company’s social media participation policy after she gave an interview to Advertising Age. The AdAge article from February offers a concise look at Rowley’s work as head of the company’s social selling effort, where she was helping Oracle’s sales staff learn how to use social networks as part of their jobs.

According to Business Insider, she was transforming the team of more than 23,000 sales people. Oracle hasn’t commented to Business Insider on Rowley’s dismissal.

If Rowley’s account is accurate, though, it’s troubling on a number of levels. It’s not unreasonable to think that someone who has become a thought leader in social selling would know better than to overstep a social media policy. But a review of Oracle’s Social Media Participation Policy doesn’t reveal what policy element Rowley violated.

The 13-paragraph article doesn’t disclose confidential information, comment on mergers and acquisitions activity, or discuss future offerings. She said nothing objectionable or inflammatory. As for speaking for Oracle, it’s not clear that she did, but then again, AdAge is not a social media property as defined by Oracle’s policy.

Rowley says she isn’t bitter and is anxious to dive into her new consulting practice, something she was already planning to do when Oracle acquired her employer, Eloqua, until she was persuaded to stay to take on her social selling role. (Rowley was the subject of an FIR interview where she also spoke about social selling in general as well as her work at Oracle.)

But Oracle’s action—if in fact it is based on her conversation with an AdAge reporter—points to an archaic practice implemented in a bygone era that lingers in many companies. It no longer makes sense to require employees, when contacted by the media, to direct the call to authorized representatives.

AdAge is a traditional media outlet that has, like virtually every other traditional media outlet, adopted elements of social media, mainly the ability to comment on articles and posts. But the definition of a journalist has expanded to cover more than just editors and reporters working for traditional media outlets. Blogs, podcasts and even posts to LinkedIn and Google+ can be sources of quality reporting. Exactly how is an employee to know when he’s speaking to someone who should be redirected to the PR department?

More to the point, subject-matter experts are becoming an increasingly important asset for organizations. Companies like Dell and Cisco are identifying opportunities for those experts to participate in conversations on social networks, in forums and in blog comments. And organizations-including parts of the federal government-are waking up to the fact that subject matter experts should be considered authorized spokesmen in their areas of responsibility.

The U.S. Coast Guard is the government entity referenced above. During the cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout, media reported that BP was preventing workers on the beaches from speaking with reporters.

In fact, BP had nothing to do with it; the government was responsible for media policy. Once the reports that journalists couldn’t speak with workers became a major issue, National Incident Commander Thad Allen issued a media policy focusing on “maximum access with minimum delay,” according to crisis expert Gerald Baron (author of CrisisBlogger).

Safety was the only restriction. The policy “also directed that anyone working on the spill was allowed to speak to the media, but they were to comment only on their own area of responsibility, referring other questions to those whose responsibility included the question being asked.”

This wasn’t Allen’s first rodeo. As Commandant of the Coast Guard, he had implemented a similar policy. Baron believes the policy makes sense. “The media stands ready when in their aggressive mode to make an issue out of any potential limitation on access, including speaking to employees.”

Rowley’s alleged transgression—speaking to an AdAge reporter about social selling at Oracle—doesn’t rise anywhere near the crisis communication of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Yet it’s a perfect example of why companies (are you listening, Oracle?) should update arcane policies to allow employees to talk about their own areas of responsibility. That would include training or guidelines to help employees make the best of such opportunities. Rowley, however, didn’t need any help; the AdAge article (and the FIR interview, for that matter) only made Oracle look good.

The world has changed since the “official-spokesmen-only” policies were first introduced. Transparency, authenticity and access are all vital considerations. Year after year, Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows frontline staff are more credible than official spokespersons. Trusting employees to do the right thing is a key driver of engagement. Recent legal decisions prohibit companies from banning employees from talking about their jobs online (or off).

All the signs point to letting employees talk about their work, their jobs, their areas of expertise. It’s shocking that Oracle—recently rated fourth in a list of the 10 companies doing the most to make their employees happier—has taken this stance.

Again, Oracle hasn’t commented, so we don’t have both sides of the story. If Rowley’s account is correct, though, Oracle is just one of many companies that need to get a clue about employees and the public in the 21st century.

Even if there’s more to Rowley’s situation, companies need to rethink their authorized spokespersons policies. Adhering to rules devised for a 20th-century media environment will cause more problems than they prevent.

A version of this article first appeared on Shel Holtz’s blog.

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