After 20 years, Octavia Nasr won’t be reporting on Middle East Affairs for CNN following her controversial Twitter post in praise of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, who passed away last week. The CNN editorial team took great exception to Nasr’s 140-character post, which gave her enough space to offer praise of Fadlallah, without allowing her to provide the additional information that the praise stemmed directly from the cleric’s positive views on woman’s rights. However, too little space was too much for CNN’s editorial team. As noted in the online media watchdog Mediaite:
Nasr’s initial tweet mourning the death of Fadlallah said, “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.” It was almost immediately called out by several sources, including Newsbusters and the Jerusalem Post. Also today the Simon Wiesenthal Center (“one of the largest international Jewish human rights organizations”) formally denounced the remarks and called for CNN to take action.
Well, CNN did take action and summarily dismissed Nasr. As Parisa Khosravi, Senior Vice President for CNN International Newsgathering explained in an internal memo:
I had a conversation with Octavia this morning and I want to share with you that we have decided that she will be leaving the company. As you know, her tweet over the weekend created a wide reaction. As she has stated in her blog on CNN.com, she fully accepts that she should not have made such a simplistic comment without any context whatsoever. However, at this point, we believe that her credibility in her position as senior editor for Middle Eastern affairs has been compromised going forward.
As a colleague and friend we’re going to miss seeing Octavia everyday. She has been an extremely dedicated and committed part of our team. We thank Octavia for all of her hard work and we certainly wish her all the best.
So what does this tell us about the power of social media? Was this an overreaction on the part of CNN? Are they giving Twitter too much power – it takes some effort to be concise in 140 characters, which is the beauty and the beast of Twitter. This is a prime example of how you have to be extremely careful about everything you post online. Your online brand needs to be sacrosanct, and you need always need to think before you post.
But was this an overreaction? It was a mistake in intent, if not in judgment, but does the punishment fit the crime? And how would you approach the same issue for employees in your organization? When do you hold employees accountable for every drunken frat picture or racist slur they post on Facebook? How far do your policies and procedures extend to “appropriate” social media use, and how much should employees be given latitude to express themselves?
I think one of the real challenges is the blurred lines between professional and personal brands. If you are blogging or posting for your employer, which many of us do, then the lines are clearly drawn. But what about personal posts that spill into our professional lives? Facebook and other social media sites typically ask for employment data, but does that mean we are using social media for professional purposes, or that we should be held accountable to a professional standard?
In this case, Nasr may have had a lapse in judgment, and the punishment meted out may seem harsh in light of the offense. Still, her Twitter feed was clearly an extension of her job, her professional brand, and CNN has a right to protect its brand and its reputation. But did CNN go too far? Would your online activities measure up to the same standard?
I have to ask myself if we are giving social media too much power, especially in this case. It’s one thing to demonstrate a pattern of hate speech or a consistent opinion that might rankle management. It’s something else to make a mistake. So before you hit that “post” button, think twice about what you are saying and its possible consequences.