Quick Update: Maybe We’ll See Clarity on Employer Liability for Social Media

This is a quick note.

I found something recently that bears directly on my post on Employer Liability for Employee Social Media, and I’m somewhat hopeful that we’ll see more clarity on this topic.

Michael Yon is an independent journalist who reports from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world where the U.S. military (and its allies) are fighting.  I happen to love his work, and believe it points to the future of journalism, but that’s a different story.

He recently posted a report on Facebook about two soldiers who were killed by Taliban attacks.  That in and of itself is not unusual. He does this all the time, doing the job that the national media rarely does.

What is unusual is that in the comments to this report on Facebook, a Mike Garcia attacked Yon for releasing the names of the soldiers before the DoD got around to it.  Scroll down in Michael’s fan page to find this thread, as I couldn’t find a way to link directly to his post and to the comments.

Turns out that Yon had followed all guidelines, directives, and had cleared the release with Army commanders on the ground in Afghanistan.  What followed is where things get interesting for us.

We see that Mike Garcia says that the FB comment is is personal opinion, that he is not representing the US Army or speak in any official capacity, even though he is a Public Affairs Officer.

Michael Yon is having none of it.  He believes that the fact that Mike Garcia is a Public Affairs Officer of the US Army means that he represents the Army even on a Facebook comment.  Which means that Yon believes he can now sue the Army for defamation and libel.

Now while it’s highly unlikely that Yon would actually sue the Army for defamation, I sorta hope he would so we’d get a case directly on point as to when the employer is and is not responsible for the social media actions of an employee, and what the relevant factors might be.  In this case, Major Garcia is a Public Affairs Officer — something close to a PR person — and posting on Facebook is likely in the sphere of his employment.  Respondeat superior ought to follow.

But at a minimum, we might see the Army promulgate specific directives clarifying when a soldier (an employee of the Army) is and is not speaking for the Army when engaging in social media.  That would be helpful for additional clarity.


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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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