Consequences for not having a blogging policy

cnnlogo All is not well at broadcaster CNN, if the story of Chez Pazienza is anything to go by.

Pazienza, a producer on CNN’s American Morning TV show until last week, was fired for blogging.

At least, that’s what it looked like until Pazienza posted his account last night of what led up to his dismissal by CNN.

I first heard of this story last weekend via a post by Erin Byrne on Burson-Marsteller’s Digital Perspective blog.

In FIR #320 yesterday Shel and I talked about it, focusing a large part of our discussion on key points such as Erin made in her post:

[…] It seems very 2002 for a media property to fire someone over blogging, especially given blog readership and how many media outlets are encouraging their journalists to blog more. But then I read some of the producer’s posts, both on his personal blog and on Huffington Post. He covers topics with a strong personal point of view and no mincing of words, and could leave readers wondering how his personal perspective influences his work for CNN. To be fair, I don’t believe he had ever disclosed his employer on his blog, but he also didn’t have any disclaimers protecting them either.

[…] it did make me realize how critical it is for companies to develop and distribute a policy on employee blogging. What are the rules of engagement, and what are the consequences for violating them?

According to Pazienza’s account, it looks as though CNN has no rules of engagement while there are consequences for violators of those ‘no rules.’

In reading Pazienza’s story, it becomes clear that he was let go by the broadcaster for breaking a clause in his contract of employment directly related to his side interest of contributing content to the news and commentary site Huffington Post; he had not informed CNN of his activity with that site:

[…] During my final conversation with [my boss] Ed Litvak and a representative from HR, they hammered home a single line in the CNN employee handbook which states that any writing done for a "non-CNN outlet" must be run through the network’s standards and practices department. They asked if I had seen this decree. As a matter of fact I had, but only about a month previously, when I stumbled across a copy of that handbook on someone’s desk and thumbed through it. I let them know exactly what I had thought when I read the rule, namely that it was staggeringly vague and couldn’t possibly apply to something as innocuous as a blog. (I didn’t realize until later that CNN had canned a 29-year-old intern for having the temerity to write about her work experiences – her positive work experiences – in a password-protected online journal a year earlier.) I told both my boss and HR representative that a network which prides itself on being so internet savvy – or promotes itself as such, ad nauseam – should probably specify blogging and online networking restrictions in its handbook. I said that they can’t possibly expect CNN employees, en masse, to not engage in something as popular and timely as blogging if they don’t make themselves perfectly clear.

I find it hard to understand how someone so well versed in the way things work in American mainstream broadcasting media and who has been a blogger since 2006 – he’s certainly no blogging neophyte – could possibly imagine that his non-disclosure of his involvement with the Huffington Post would have no consequences when discovered.

Should Pazienza have been fired?

On the face it, he violated a clause in his contract so it looks like yes. I don’t think it’s that simple, though, and I’m sure legal brains in the US would have some interesting views.

Plus there seems to be a lot of subjective opinion out there, much of it political, so how can I possibly comment in muddy water?

And on the other hand, what of CNN?

Pazienza makes a good point when he says that CNN should include in the employee handbook specific reference to blogging (and other social media too) in terms of what’s allowed and what’s not. Just to make everything very clear to everyone.

I find it equally hard to understand why they don’t already.

Maybe they ought to take a look for some ideas at what the BBC established some years ago with regard to employee blogging and the ground rules for journalists, producers and others.

Comprehensive, clear and wholly transparent – it’s all out there on the internet, not purely available behind the employee firewall.

The consequences for CNN in not making it clear are an ex-employee telling a far from flattering story, resulting in more negative commentary and opinion – and the lawyers haven’t entered the picture yet – which shines a spotlight on their own lack of foresight.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Chip Griffin

    If this story were merely about the producer’s personal blog, then I might be inclined to agree that CNN could have been clearer in its policy. However, by serving as a contributor to a for-profit media publication (The Huffington Post), the individual clearly crossed the line in the explicit policies of CNN.

    Moreover, it is common for major media organizations to require individuals to have editor’s clearance for outside writing assignments, which this was. In addition, it is not uncommon for media outlets to require employees to steer clear of overt political activity, even if their jobs do not directly involve political coverage (see, for instance, the Associated Press policy published online).

    At a bare minimum, this producer exercised extraordinarily poor judgment, especially for someone with as much experience (and apparently promise, according to his own account) as he had.

    I do believe companies need to be cognizant of social media when writing employment policies, and CNN may well want to address this more explicitly in the future. However, I also believe it is often unwise to write detailed policies in handbooks, as it leaves an organization exposed to frequent changes to address changing technology.

    One of the beautiful things about the American Constitution is that it stands the test of time, with relatively modest and infrequent modifications. That’s not to say an employment handbook need be as eloquent or long-lived, but what happens when something supplants blogs and is not explicitly mentioned in an employment handbook?

    Ultimately, employees and employers both must exercise sound judgment and careful communication. In this case, I find it very hard to sympathize with the position of the producer.

  2. matt lambert

    Thanks Neville. A cracking link to “Pazienza posted his account” – a very well written piece that opens a chink of light into news rooms.

    I don’t know about you, but newsreaders all seem just that little bit more miserable to me, perhaps its since ‘drop the dead donkey’ finished it’s run.

    You don’t get tv like that anymore.

  3. neville

    A thoughtful post, Chip, thanks.

    I think CNN should shoulder much of the responsibility here. Yes, common sense ought also to be in the picture by the employee. But the employer has a responsibility of care, ie, in this case to ensure that a) it’s clear to everyone what’s allowed and what isn’t when it comes to any activity beyond what you’re contracted for as an employee, and b) to communicate that.

    Based on Chez Pazienza’s account, it appears they fell down in both areas.

    Matt, it makes CNN look very much like Drop the Dead Donkey :)

  4. » Helpful Links » links for 2008-02-20

    […] Consequences for not having a blogging policy : While Microsoft’s blogging policy is “be smart”, this article suggests that maybe we need to be a bit more explicit. Especially when CNN had no official policy, yet fired a producer for breaking the policy they didn’t have. Hmm.. (tags: blogging policy) […]

  5. Ed Roberts

    I agree Neville. Don’t think for a minute that this guy didn’t have at least the slightest thought that this could get him in trouble. Even the slightest flicker of bad PR, and people are canned. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been loyal for 20 years. I’ve seen it happen for MUCH less egregious things in my short time in broadcast television. Having been a seasoned pro, he would have known.

    Should CNN have had a blogging clause in their employee handbook? Maybe. Given that they are a media organization I see the argument, but even broadcasting contracts didn’t include this kind of clause until at BEST 3 years ago. I’d seriously doubt that the majority of companies strive to reevaluate their employee handbook every 2-3 years.

    CNN should have handled the situation better, but these kinds of thing always have and always will continue in broadcasting.

  6. neville

    You have a good point, Ed, re a blogging clause in the employee handbook.

    Should CNN (or any other company) have that? I think much depends on other things including what they may already have in place with guidelines or policies on what employees can or can’t do with things like email.

    But if there’s either nothing meaningful in any such area, or if there is something in place yet is so bare bones or buried away (as appears to be the case with CNN), then perhaps the employer ought to have something explicit on this topic.

  7. CNN’s new citizen-journalism site: beta, or blur? « Brendan Cooper - Your friendly PR social media planner

    […] Neville Hobson recently posted on the plight of ex-CNN employee Chez Pazienza who was sacked for covertly running his own blog. Chez could have been slightly silly in that, as someone who should have been sensitive to the issues around blogging in the communications industry, he failed to disclose what he was doing. I certainly asked my employer if they had any objections when I started this blog. […]

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    […] However, we’re still faced with the dangers.  All too recently, Twitter in education  came under attack from the media when a Scottish teacher apparently misused it.  More often than not, however, these risks are as a result of unclear guidance on HOW to use it, rather than the technology itself.   It’s a matter not of danger, but of policy (as indicated by PR Guru Neville Hobson’s blog). […]

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