Welcome to the Stifyn Emrys blog. Visit this site to stay updated on the latest news and releases from author Stifyn Emrys, along with serious, silly and occasionally sarcastic observations about the world around us.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Public Figures and Social Media: Some Guidelines and a Little Advice

Who is a public figure?

When can you quote something a public figure posts online?

These are two legitimate questions, and I'd like to tackle the second question first, using a recent example. The San Antonio Spurs recently swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. But was this the big news? That's debatable. Many media outlets made a bigger deal out of injured Lakers star Kobe Bryant's tweets from the sidelines.

Most of Bryant's tweets involved analysis and tips for the team. Here's a sampling (misspelled words are sic):

  • "I love how Nash is moving so far. Both teams a lil out of rhythm to start."
  • "@nabarocksstc I agree. Lethargic start for us. Gotta minimize little mistakes like giving the middle drive on close outs"
  • "Nothing worse then watching your bothers struggle and u can't do crap about it #realtalk"

Bryant was obviously frustrated that he couldn't be out on the court with his teammates (a torn Achilles' tendon saw to that), so he was trying to "play" vicariously through his Twitter account.

Bryant certainly knows he's a public figure, and he must have realized that the media were going to see his tweets. Still, he didn't seem to realize how heavily the media were going to emphasize his comments, and he eventually decided to stop tweeting: "I see my tweeting during the game is being talked about as much as the game itself," he wrote.  "CHOOSE not [to]. Focus should be on the team not my insight."

Now to the second question: Who is a public figure?

There are two ways one can qualify for this label: First, you can become a public figure by becoming famous.  But famous people aren't the only public figures. You can also become what's called a limited purpose public figure. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, this is "someone who is not so famous as to be a household name, but who has become well known with regard to a particular issue."

People who seek the limelight often fall into this category. Authors Tad Crawford and Kay Murray put it this way in The Writer's Legal Guide: "Private individuals can become 'limited purpose public figures,' when they actively, voluntarily or willfully seek the public eye."

This applies perhaps no more clearly than to people whose name is their franchise. Artists, authors, solo musicians and some athletes fall into this category. Names like Kobe, Tiger, Madonna, Stephen King and Taylor Swift come to mind. If you're marketing your name, you're a limited purpose public figure. If you're marketing your name and you're famous (such as the above folks), there's nothing limited about it. You're a public figure, period.

One must assume that a public figure speaking on a public forum such as Facebook or Twitter is making what amounts to a public statement. Is it OK to quote one? Sure, it is - unless the person being quoted can demonstrate the other person 1) is guilty of defamation and 2) has "actual malice" toward him or her.

Bursting the bubble

So, how should a public figure act on Twitter or Facebook? And how should other social media users behave when quoting public figures (beyond the obvious of avoiding defamatory and malicious statements)?

If you're a public figure posting on Facebook or Twitter, make sure your posts are something you'd be proud to have repeated. Too often, people on social media act like the driver who rocks out to his favorite tunes or flips off a police officer from behind the wheel, assuming no one else can see him. He's wrong. The privacy bubble he thinks exists within the confines of his Fiat or El Dorado is an illusion. The roadway is public, and so are the social media.

In fact, Facebook and Twitter are both actually designed to make quoting people as easy a single mouse click. Each has its own handy dandy tool: On Facebook, it's called the "Share" option; on Twitter, it's "Retweet." Don't want to be quoted? Simple. Keep it off your Facebook wall or Twitter feed. Both services offer private mail/messaging features that are easy to use, perfect for more confidential interactions (but be careful: nothing online is entirely confidential).

Show some respect

So, if you want to quote another person's post on Facebook or Twitter, you don't have to ask. But you shouldn't use their posts as an excuse to excoriate them in public. It's better to treat people with respect than think you can act with impunity. You're not in a bubble, either.

Never quote someone's Facebook or Twitter post out of context. Make sure you're fairly representing what the person said, not twisting it to fit your own agenda. Don't make someone appear to agree with you or support your position by manipulating their quotes. That's flat-out unethical.

It's also unethical to pass off someone else's words as your own. That's called plagiarism, and it's just as unacceptable online as it is on a college term paper. If you're quoting someone, include attribution.

One more tip: Be sure you're quoting the person you think you're quoting. There are any number of people out there who think it's fun to impersonate public figures - especially on Twitter. If you don't believe me, try doing a search for Rowan Atkinson on Twitter and see how many results pop up. Is any of them the real Rowan Atkinson? When in doubt as to someone's identity, don't quote the person. It's better to follow the account for a while, crosscheck it with other facts you find online and make sure the person is the genuine article.

Exposure has its price

If you're a public figure posting something on Facebook or Twitter, every post you make is an official statement, as surely as if you'd sent out a news release. Are you a public figure who uses social media largely to promote yourself? Do you have a banner on your Facebook page that promotes your latest album? Does your Twitter account identify you as "the author of ..."? If so, you're using the social media as a marketing tool, and its contents must be viewed as representing the product: you. You have an obligation - not only to your potential customers, but to yourself - to represent yourself with dignity.

If you're debating something, whether on Facebook or blogging back and forth, don't get drawn into heated arguments, don't make it personal. Keep it about the issues.

That doesn't mean you should be afraid to be passionate. If you believe in something, say so. For instance, I believe strongly in equal rights, same-sex marriage, freedom of (and from) religion, and standing up to bullies. If I post something about my beliefs on one of my social media sites, I shouldn't have a problem being quoted. In fact, if I really do believe in it, I should be proud of the stance I've taken and should be glad when others share my words. That said, it's in my own interest not to come off as shrill or defensive. When that happens, the tone overpowers the message.

And finally, if you're a public figure and someone quotes you fairly and accurately from the social media, with attribution and respect, don't complain about it. Go with it. Even if the person disagrees with you, it's free publicity, and that never hurts. Besides, you might just learn something.


  1. I agree that public people -- and to a certain extent that would include me -- can have their Facebook or Twitter statements quoted. And you did not misquote me. But context is important. Statements made in casual conversation should not be assumed to be one's full position on an issue. And those comments should not be used in a way that implies they are anything but an off-the-cuff remark.

    I've undoubtedly told someone on Twitter or Facebook at some point to drop dead. Might have been a joke, might have been a flash of anger, but it would not be fair to say, "Michael Grant threatens murder."

    To require that all statements by all public figures be so carefully parsed that they can be assumed to be their full and considered opinion is to essentially demand an end to the use of social media by public figures. The "gotcha!" element is a club used to beat up on public people. It denies the humanity of public figures. It destroys our ability to communicate. And no, we are not in any way, shape or form required to sit quietly and let it happen without protest.

    Had you told me you were going to be writing on the topic I might have added additional information. For example, I might have pointed out that I was an early advocate of digital media. And that I support self-publishing. That my wife and I were in the first generation of people who've had their works given the fan-fic treatment and that we embraced it when some were making noises about lawsuits. Or that I've said publicly I would vehemently oppose any prosecution of someone illegally downloading my books.

    Instead you cast me as the defender of the status quo -- a label that would have made my editors spit up their tuna sandwiches. You ignored a nearly simultaneous post in which I eviscerated the agency system, which rather clearly does not endear me to the defenders of the "status quo."

    You also created a sort of phony dialog in which your voice is represented in ex-post facto reflection while mine is represented by snatches of dialog. This despite the fact that your own words were right there on Facebook alongside mine. But rather than quote yourself you rewrote yourself and left me to be represented by cherry-picked phrases taken from the middle of an ongoing conversation.

    Bottom line, you had an agenda. You wanted someone to play the role of big, bad defender of the status quo in order to cast yourself in the hero role defending the little guy. You wanted to beat up on editors about whom you know nothing, conflating agents and editors and publishers as though these were all one thing. Again, despite the fact that a long thread of mine lays out the differences.

    You went back again to this notion that all published authors are "connected." When my wife and I were first published we were cleaning homes during the day and offices at night. After we got that first check we took Polaroids: Katherine bent over a toilet scrubbing dried turds. Me cleaning out the bin of used Tampons. That's how connected we were. Judging by your resume you are a hell of a lot more connected than I ever was.

    Some unsolicited advice. You may be a great writer. I hope you're a great writer. I hope you succeed beyond your wildest expectations. Really. I like writers, they're my tribe. But get the fucking chip off your shoulder. Editors are not your enemies. They are nice, decent, hard-working, underpaid women (at least in kidlit) who are genuinely madly in love with books. They don't throw your manuscript in the trash. They don't refuse to handle anything un-agented, their corporate overlords don't give them staff to handle unsolicited manuscripts. Most imprints are a handful of editors -- half a dozen -- who obviously cannot read the thousand manuscripts that would show up every week. You want to be mad at someone? Be mad at NewsCorp and Disney and Bertelsman.

    1. From what I can see, you’re addressing a couple of different topics: the use of your quotations and the topic of the (now deleted) piece itself.

      I’d like to address each in turn. As to the use of your quotes, I deleted the piece based on your objections and the belief that people have a right to express themselves as they see fit. If you believe the piece provided too narrow a context for the quotes, that’s good enough for me. All I can do is apologize for any mischaracterizations and to assure you they were unintentional.

      I can also say that, upon reflection, the piece could have been written just as easily without using your quotes — and this is exactly what I should have done. I wasn’t trying to set you up as the bad guy (and, in fact, I included what I thought were a couple of complimentary statements in the piece, including one in which I said you had a good point). Still, if that’s how it appeared, I owe it to you as a matter of courtesy and professionalism to respond to that.

      Ultimately, I wanted to address an issue that some of your comments touched on, but I’m afraid the decision to quote those comments not only offended you but also overshadowed the point I was trying to make, so it didn’t serve either of us well. That’s why, even though the present piece (above) was inspired by that previous interaction, I didn’t refer to you in this article — not merely out of courtesy, though that was certainly a major factor, but also because I wanted it to be an investigation of a topic, rather than a vehicle to perpetuate a personal disagreement.

      As to the topic of the original piece, I certainly did not mean to suggest that all editors, agents and publishers are some sort of cross between Voldemort and J. Jonah Jameson. (Were I to have done so, it would have been pretty damned ironic.) Stereotyping is one of my pet peeves, and I have no desire to go down that road. My point wasn’t to excoriate any individuals or a particular profession, either of which would be vastly unfair, but rather to critique what I see as a highly problematic system.

      In fact, the deleted blog explicitly made the point that “there are plenty of traditional publishers out there with a good eye for talent and worthy content.” What I was trying to get across is that I believe the traditional system is broken, and I’ll stand by that. I think your comment that “a handful of editors … obviously can’t read the thousands of manuscripts that show up every week,” reinforces my point on that score. It’s not the editors, but rather the system. I think, as I wrote before, you have a point in saying the self-publishing system is also highly flawed. But if we’re faced with a bottleneck on the one hand and a free-for-all on the other, I’m convinced that there has to be some third option, and I hope to see that evolve.

  2. It's really just about this shared responsibility and mutual respect between the public figures and the people who follow them. Both sides should do their part, right? I agree with everything you said. I want people around here and in the Phoenix social media to take note of this.

  3. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog.
    instagram shoutouts

  4. This is extremely helpful info!! Very good work. Everything is very interesting to learn and easy to understood. Thank you for giving information. great article, I was very impressed about it, wish you would have stayed next share
    social media professional in mississippi

  5. You have a good point here!I totally agree with what you have said!!
    سئو سایت

  6. I think this is an informative post and it is very useful and knowledgeable. therefore, I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article
    Free Search Engine Submission

  7. Thank you for sharing such valuable and helpful information and knowledge. This can give us more insights! Keep it up. I would love to see your next update.

    Social Media Services