Over the last couple of days, a major controversy has been brewing regarding a specific Facebook post made by a woman by the name of Lindsey Stone, and the online reputation management of the company that employs her. If you haven’t heard this story yet, no doubt you will soon find it hard to ignore. The controversy surrounding Lindsey started when she posted a picture of herself on Facebook. In the photo Lindsey is standing at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, she is pretending to yell and flipping off the camera, in front of a sign which reads “Silence and Respect.” The photo was taken by a coworker of hers while the two were on a work-paid trip in October, and has since gone viral as concerned citizens and veterans alike have criticized her for her insensitivity.
Lindsey attempted to stem the tide by posting an explanation of sorts: “Whoa whoa whoa… wait,” she wrote, “This is just us, being the douchebags that we are, challenging authority in general. Much like the pic posted the night before, of me smoking right next to a no smoking sign. OBVIOUSLY we meant NO disrespect to people that serve or have served our country.” Since then a Facebook page entitled “Fire Lindsey Stone” has gathered more than 12,000 likes to its cause and is growing exponentially every day. Lindsey and her coworker are (were?) employed by LIFE (Living Independently For Everyone, Inc.) a non-profit organization that assists people with disabilities, and the company that funded their trip to Arlington. They have since been placed on unpaid leave, and LIFE has issued a lengthy statement, part of which is detailed here:
“This photograph in no way reflects the opinions or values of the LIFE organization, which holds our nation’s veterans in the highest regard. We are proud to have veterans serving on our staff and board of trustees, and we value their service. The men and women who have selflessly fought and sacrificed their lives to protect the rights and lives of Americans deserve our utmost respect and gratitude. We are acutely aware that this photo has done a disservice to veterans and we are deeply saddened that it was taken and shared in a public medium.”
It’s hard to argue that this photo was taken in poor taste. There is a level of disrespect and insensibility here that frankly astounds me, however the photo itself and Stone’s right to express herself that way, is expressly protected by our nation’s constitution. Luckily for her, speech and expression of opinion, no matter how unpopular they may be, are protected, and therefore she is safe from lawful prosecution by our government or any government official. Unfortunately for her, that is the extent of the first amendment’s reach. The first amendment does not defend against negative reputation or perception, and it certainly doesn’t state that anyone can say or do anything without facing the consequences of their actions.
Lindsey will have to live with repercussions of this for a long long time if not for the rest of her life, and the impact doesn’t end there. Remember that Lindsay was on a paid company trip at the time of the incident and therefore, intentionally or not, was representing LIFE inc. as well as herself when she posted this photo. LIFE is playing it cool and has only thus far put Lindsey and her coworker on unpaid leave, but there is a great deal of vitriol surrounding this issue and specifically people calling for LIFE to terminate her employment. In the age of social media and viral exposure, companies of any size or persuasion can ill afford to be linked to a story with this kind of negative momentum. We’ve seen it time and time again whether it’s something local like the Clay Nissan story or the more recent incident with American Apparel, Social media can heap a mountain of bad press on you before you can blink an eye. Some of the articles I’ve read from earlier on Tuesday report that the page “Fire Lindsey Stone” had 5000 likes, it now has well more than 12,000.
Social media does have the power to positively influence your brand image with unparalleled success, but the slightest wrong move or a hint of bad luck with an employee, and it can all turn against you. Staying vigilant and therefore ahead of this kind of story can mean the difference between your company being stormed by an angry mob and a controversial story being written about a former employee. That being said I don’t recommend monitoring employees social media habits, there are other ways of ensuring that your employees don’t have these kind of issues—such as training employees on the dangers of ill-conceived social media posts. In light of the exponential exposure this story is getting and the fact that the two involved persons were on company time when the incident occurred LIFE would be more than justified in terminating both employees.
What do you think? Would LIFE be justified in firing Lindsay and her coworker?