Why the First Amendment won’t protect PR pros online

You might have a legal right to express your thoughts and feelings through your individual social media profiles, but you’re not protected from the consequences of your actions.


Free speech is a cornerstone of our democracy.

The First Amendment guides many U.S. citizens’ core beliefs, shaping how we think and view ourselves compared to the rest of the world.

However, the First Amendment and social media don’t mix.

Though you can say practically anything online, often without legal consequence, the First Amendment won’t protect you from losing your job, livelihood or reputation.

ESPN recently suspended “SportsCenter” host Jemele Hill for her social media comments about Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the NFL national anthem controversy. ESPN specifically cited violations of the network’s social media policy.

Hayley Geftman-Gold was fired from her position as vice president andsenior counsel for CBS after she wrote on her Facebook page that she was not sympathetic to victims of the Las Vegas shooting because, she claimed, most country music fans are Republican. Geftman-Gold’s argument, though insensitive and idiotic, fell within her right to free expression. However, a law license and a thorough understanding of the First Amendment didn’t help Geftman-Gold keep her job.

Last year, United Airlines Pilot Michael Folk was suspended after tweeting that Hillary Clinton should be hanged for treason. Folk, who also serves in the West Virginia House of Delegates, let his political leanings (and word choices) directly impact his income. He had a right to say it, but his employer didn’t—and shouldn’t—allow it.

Also last year, a Miami man went on an epic rant about the election in a local coffee shop. His disparaging words were captured on video and posted online, turning him into a viral sensation. The self-employed man lost clients almost immediately and is still rebuilding his tattered reputation. He said things that were offensive, but not illegal, slanderous or defamatory. However, severe punishment was meted out by the marketplace.

PR pros, be careful with what you say online.

Realize that every thought that pops into your head does not deserve to be a Facebook post or a tweet. Many online problems arise from shoddy habits, poor word choices, failed attempts at humor and even auto-correct mistakes. Exercise extra care, and you could avoid a problem.

Not only should you watch your words, but you should also be careful where you say them.

The average American can be caught on camera 75 times per day. You are being watched in the bank, grocery store and gas station. When you erupt in the local bakery about the current price of scones, there are probably a dozen confection lovers standing at the ready with smartphone cameras to film your blow up.

PR pros must be vigilant about their behavior because it is incredibly easy for your outbursts to be digitally captured and quickly publicized online.

Google your name. Is there anything on the first few pages that you don’t like, or a link that could negatively affect your organization?

You can’t fix it if you don’t know, which is why you should continuously monitor your online results. It can be as simple as setting up a Google alert, and there are many efficient and cost-effective options available if you seek a more robust tool. Individual PR pros should check for their names on Google a few times each month.

If you find something negative online, be prepared to act.

If an online crowd is lashing out over something you posted, engage with them and explain yourself. Apologize or delete your comments, if necessary. You could stop a crisis before it requires additional help.

John P. David is the president of the David PR Group.

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Topics: PR

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