Ottawa tragedy brings harsh social media lesson

Shawna Rossi – To a young journalist assigned to one of the biggest Canadian news stories in history, one timely moment must have seemed like the perfect opportunity to earn some social media karma.  In the process of covering the Parliament Hill shootings in Ottawa on October 22, 2014, Vandon Gene, a new Sun News reporter, had an interaction with famed reporter Anderson Cooper from CNN and asked him for a selfie.

With the cameras rolling, Cooper refused and reprimanded Gene for asking for a personal photo at such a serious moment: when a soldier has lost his life.

While journalists of Anderson Cooper’s generation would have a moment of self-realization at the inappropriate nature of the request, this young reporter – a member of the social media generation – decided to publicly take Cooper to task – through the worldwide lens of Twitter no less.

A clip of the video taken by his cameraman is quickly edited to ‘prove his point’ and posted on YouTube and a series of tweets between Cooper and a clueless and the (originally) unrepentant reporter follow.

Fast-forward to the next day, the Sun media reporter posted a number of apologetic tweets, deleted his tweets from the day before along with the video link, and appeared to be no longer associated with Sun.

Most news coverage painted Gene in an unsympathetic light. When Cooper responded to Gene on Twitter – it seemed that he knew it would take an experience like ruining his career for Gene to understand what a serious mistake he had made.  

Humbled, Gene has done much to start rehabilitating himself in his tone and response.

While it’s easy to shake your head at Vandon Gene, when you look at this situation through the lens of communications and reputation management, you can’t help but feel sorry for this young man who could very well represent his generation of communicators. They have grown up in their formative years attached to social media – computers have replaced pens, iPads have replaced TV and if they have a backpack in one hand, there is a smartphone in the other. Their life is lived on and through social media and the most prominent way they know to communicate is in tweets, Instagrams, likes, shares and selfies.

The lines between traditional communication and social communication are now so blurred for millennials they may not even exist anymore – so much so that when Gene spotted one of his career idols, it was only natural for him to ask for a ‘selfie’ and think Cooper was being disrespectful to him when he refused and scolded him for asking. After all, a selfie with a celebrity journalist would be worth a fortune in social media currency amongst his friends and followers and, to him, would be a valuable way of building his online brand.

By publicly chastising Cooper after the situation and posting the video, he was able to procure followers, retweets, and even make himself famous – although probably not in the way he thought. He assumed he was building his reputation but he will now have to spend months and even years building it back up – all because he was desensitized to what was appropriate behavior online and offline.

There are a few basic common sense rules that we can reinforce from this incident:

  1. Don’t make yourself part of the news story
  2. Don’t leverage serious incidents and major news stories to build your own brand
  3. Don’t take on a renowned reporter on Twitter
  4. Don’t leverage the name of your employer for your own personal gain and expect to keep your job

Vandon Gene will probably become a journalism footnote and a case study used in public relations schools – but if the lessons are being taught to the next generation of social media students who will be even more desensitized then the last, will the message resonate?

We can only hope that mentors like journalists who understand the proper code of conduct in their job, communications professionals who deal everyday with reputation management issues, or influencers like Anderson Cooper, will set the example that there is a line that should not be crossed on social media.

And not every moment is a selfie moment.

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