Politicians Still Getting Schooled On How Viral Videos Work

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In a move reminiscent of the Lebron James/Nike slam dunk scandal, United States Representative Baron Hill (Democrat, Indiana) attempted to stop an individual from recording his health care town hall meeting on September.  Part of his reasoning had to do with YouTube:

“Now the reason I don’t allow filming is because usually the films end up on YouTube in a compromising position.”

As I’m sure you can guess, video of the event has now ended up on YouTube, and it doesn’t exactly make Hill look good. Have a look:

In case you’re an optimist, this latest instance should serve to remind you that a lot of the “old guard” still hasn’t quite figured out how to handle the YouTube and online video phenomenon.

I decided to come up with some rules for any politicians or Fortune 500 executives who know what YouTube is but have trouble dealing or coping with it.

Rule 1. Don’t give permission to film if you think there may be a chance you’ll regret it.

In the case of the Hill video, the audience member in question—a sophomore at Indiana University—was given permission to film by event organizers.  Then, perhaps sensing the potential embarrassment, they decided she would not be allowed to film. She stopped filming, and eventually managed to ask Hill a question about why she wasn’t allowed to film.  Someone behind her in the audience was filming the exchange, naturally.  It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, really.  Just like in the case of Lebron and Nike, taking back permission to film sort of creates the very thing you’re trying to avoid having on film.

Rule 2. Authoritarianism doesn’t play well in the world of social media.

When the student asked Representative Hill why she couldn’t film, his first response was, “This is my town hall meeting and I set the rules.”  Wonderful.  This is the “take my ball and go home” defense, and it just doesn’t fly.  I’ll leave alone, for the time being, how frustrating it is to have politicians feeling possessive and entitled about a town hall meeting of their constituents.  Like our friends in the SEC will learn, taking an authoritarian stance on YouTube or social media issues only encourages people to do exactly what you hope they won’t.

Rule 3. Don’t say anything in public that you can’t defend.

A lesson that amazingly still needs repeating:  anything you say in a public setting might end up online.  I can understand that college kids are struggling to learn this one, but politicians?  They should know better.  In the era of the smart phone, you’re always a moment away from eternal embarrassment.  Anything you do in a public setting (and even in some private ones, such as a party) could end up in a photograph on Flickr.  If you might be embarrassed to see it online… don’t wear it, don’t say it, don’t do it.

Hill, in a phone interview with the article’s author, says the video ending up online only proves his point.  He says video snippets from town hall meetings are often taken out of context and are used to fuel political friction.  I would counter that he shouldn’t say anything in a town hall meeting—the very concept of which is openness and transparency—that he doesn’t want to become public.

It’s worth noting that the student later admitted to opposing Hill’s views on health care reform before the town hall began.  But I’m not convinced that means she should be dismissed.  In fact, the video, which now has over 100,000 views, wasn’t even shot by her.  (I’m not trying to wage a war over health care or left versus right here.  From where I sit, both Republicans and Democrats have showed an equally amazing lack of understanding as to how media is changing.)

I’m surprised that some of the old guard still thinks they can control what people do with their smart phones and cameras.  The fact is, you really can’t.  And by trying to, you only fuel the desire they might have to embarrass you.  There’s probably always someone willing to break the rules and film something off limits… even more the case when you basically dare them to.

You would think that politicians on both sides of the aisle would eventually get a better grasp on social media and how to deal with it, but it does seem to be taking a while, doesn’t it?


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