University left red-faced over Charlotte Dawson Twitter exchange

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It’s the PR nightmare lurking in social media: employees embarrassing their organisation through questionable or offensive online activity.

Monash University was last week forced to issue a statement in response to the carnage caused by an employee who, for reasons unknown, took to Twitter to berate well-known television personality Charlotte Dawson.

The furore began when the New Zealand born Dawson re-tweeted an abusive message from Tanya Heti, a Monash mentoring program staffer (who was tweeting under an alias). The original tweet by Heti read: “@LouisIsaako: excuse me @MsCharlotteD on behalf of NZ we would like you to please GO HANG YOURSELF!!!”

One of Dawson’s followers then wrote back to Heti that her comment was unacceptable, and was herself set upon. The Herald Sun reported that Dawson then personally contacted Heti to challenge the comments, but claims she was met with more hostility and abused once again.

Dissatisfied by the response, Dawson then contacted Heti’s employer, the Pro Vice Chancellor for social inclusion, Sue Willis, and made a complaint. “Monash University does not condone or endorse the comments made by Tanya Heti in relation to her Twitter exchange with Charlotte Dawson,” an official statement posted on its website said. “The University has directed Ms Heti to take leave with pay and is in the process of investigating the matter at this time,” it continued.*

Social media expert Tiphereth Gloria, from VML Australia, told the Sydney Morning Herald that, putting aside internal and external social media policies, it might be time for HR to carry out “spot checks” on employees’ personal social media channels when they have prominent online profiles identifying themselves as members of an organisation.

Incidents like these further crystallise the high potential for social media risk, particularly stemming from employee activity, to damage corporate brands. The risk is not limited to brand damage either; employees are the key source of corporate information leakage on social media platforms, Anthony Mason from social media monitoring firm SR7 told the Herald.

* Unfortunately, for Dawson, the Twitter abuse did not end with the university's apology. After she appeared on several current affairs programmes to publicise the issue of cyber-bullying and harassment, she was subjected to further and more extreme Twitter abuse. This, in turn, led to Dawson's hospitalisation. She is expected to make a full recovery.

 

Related story: Social media: HR’s role in monitoring the reputational risks

 

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