Jill Rowley’s dismissal could be a case of misguided adherence to 20th-century spokesperson policies

Posted on March 19, 2014 7:39 am by | Crisis Communication | Internal | Media | PR

Jill RowleyJill Rowley says Oracle fired her for violating the company’s social media participation policy after she gave an interview to Advertising Age. The AdAge article from early last month offers a concise look at Rowley’s work as head of the company’s social selling effort, where she was helping Oracle’s sales staff learn how to use social networks as part of their jobs. According to Business Insider, she was transforming the team of more than 23,000 sales people.

According to Business Insider, Oracle hasn’t commented on Rowley’s dismissal. If the reason Rowley offers is accurate, though, it’s troubling on a number of levels. It’s not unreasonable to think that someone who has become a thought leader in social selling would know better than to overstep a social media policy. But a review of Oracle’s Social Media Participation Policy doesn’t reveal what policy element Rowley might have violated.

The 13-paragraph article doesn’t disclose confidential information, comment on M&A activity, or discuss future offerings. She said nothing objectionable or inflammatory. As for speaking for Oracle, it’s not clear that she did, but then again, AdAge is not a social media property as defined by Oracle’s policy.

Rowley says she isn’t bitter and is anxious to dive into her new consulting practice, something she was already planning to do when Oracle acquired her employer, Eloqua, until she was convinced to stay to take on her social selling role. (Rowley was the subject of an FIR interview where she also spoke about social selling in general as well as her work at Oracle.)

But Oracle’s action—if in fact it is based on her conversation with an AdAge reporter—points to an archaic practice implemented in a bygone era that lingers in many companies. It no longer makes sense to require employees, when contacted by the media, to direct the call to authorized spokespersons.

AdAge is a traditional media outlet that has, like virtually every other traditional media outlet, adopted elements of social media, mainly the ability to comment on articles and posts. But the definition of a journalist has expanded to cover more than just editors and reporters working for traditional media outlets. Blogs, podcasts and even posts to LinkedIn and Google+ can be sources of quality reporting. Exactly how is an employee to know when he’s speaking to someone who should be redirected to the PR department?

But more to the point, subject matter experts are becoming an increasingly important asset for organizations. Companies like Dell and Cisco are identifying opportunities for SMEs to participate in conversations on social networks, in forums and in blog comments. And organizations—including parts of the federal government—are waking up to the fact that subject matter experts should be considered authorized spokespersons in their own areas of responsibility.

The U.S. Coast Guard is the government entity referenced above. During the cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon oil well blowout, media reported that BP was preventing workers on the beaches from speaking with reporters. In fact, BP had nothing to do with it; the government was responsible for media policy. Once the reports that journalists couldn’t speak with workers became a major issue, National Incident Commander Thad Allen issued a media policy focusing on “maximum access with minimum delay,” according to crisis expert Gerald Baron (author of CrisisBlogger). Safety was the only restriction. The policy “also directed that anyone working on the spill was allowed to speak to the media, but they were to comment only on their own area of responsibility, referring other questions to those whose responsibility included the question being asked.”

Deepwater Horizon cleanupThis wasn’t Allen’s first rodeo. As Commandant of the Coast Guard, he had implemented a similar policy. Baron believes the policy makes sense. “The media stands ready when in their aggressive mode to make an issue out of any potential limitation on access, including speaking to employees.”

Rowley’s alleged transgression—speaking to an AdAge reporter about social selling at Oracle—doesn’t rise anywhere near the crisis communication of the Deepwater Horizon blowout. Yet it’s a perfect example of why companies (are you listening, Oracle?) should update arcane policies to allow employees to talk about their own areas of responsibility. That would include training or guidelines to help employees make the best of such opportunities. Rowley, however, didn’t need any help; the AdAge article (and the FIR interview, for that matter) only made Oracle look good.

The world has changed since the “official-spokeperson-only” policies were first introduced. Transparency, authenticity and access are all vital considerations. Year after year, Edelman’s Trust Barometer shows frontline staff are more credible than official spokespersons. Trusting employees to do the right thing is a key driver of engagement. Recent legal decisions prohibit companies from banning employees from talking about their jobs online (or off).

All the signs point to letting employees talk about their own work, their own jobs, their own areas of expertise. It’s shocking that Oracle—recently rated number 4 in a listing of the 10 companies doing the most to make their employees happier—has taken this stance. Again, Oracle hasn’t commented, so we don’t have both sides of the story. If Rowley’s account is correct, though, Oracle is just one of many companies that needs to get a clue about employees and the public in the 21st century.

Even if there’s more to Rowley’s situation, companies need to rethink their authorized spokespersons policies. Adhering to rules devised for a 20th-century media environment will cause more problems than they prevent.

 

Comments

  • 1.Shel - thanks for weighing in the topic of my termination.

    As you and I discussed after your post went live, Oracle did in fact terminate my employment based on my conversation with an AdAge reporter. I have the emails to prove it, just not sure if I'm allowed to share. I Oracle gives me permission, I'll happily post here.

    I agree that it no longer makes sense to require employees, when contacted by the media, to direct the call to authorized spokespersons. Authenticity and Trust are critical in the modern buyer's world! Your point about Edelman's Trust Barometer is spot on, and in fact showcased in my Social Selling curriculum!!!! Buyer to Brand trust = 33%; Buyer to Buyer trust = 92% - here's where I start changing POWER TO THE PEOPLE!! http://www.insidesales.com/insider/social-selling-2/oracles-social-selling-expert-reveals-b2b-secrets/

    I say, with the web, EVERYONE is a reporter.

    I invite your readers to connect with me on LinkedIn, Follow me on Twitter @jill_rowley, Friend me on Facebook and visit my new website at http://jillrowley.com/.

    Jill Rowley | March 2014 | San Francisco Bay Area

  • 2.Well written Shel.

    Brian Solis | March 2014

  • 3.Authorized spokespeople need to start looking for new jobs, as their role really is no longer needed. In this new modern world of open public opinion, journalists and reporters are able to find information and data from all our social media profiles. Big corporates are strangling themselves by controlling the enthusiasm of executives in sharing their passion and beliefs, which will be in the company's interest of course. Let this be a lesson to Oracle and you never know they may change their ways for the future, in any event they've lost a talented and inspirational figure in their organisation and for Jill, well it's a GIFT, as she will rise to bigger and better things. Well done for getting this news story out there!

    Michael de Groot | March 2014 | United Kingdom

  • 4.I'm ejoying the spirited discussion about this topic on your Facebook page Shel. https://www.facebook.com/shel.holtz

    Jill Rowley | March 2014 | San Francisco Bay Area

  • 5.It's pretty telling when the "official" people behind social media accounts at major companies are unknowns, vs. others in the trenches who are actively making a name for themselves and their organizations in the process (such as Jill).

    What's more pathetic here is that Oracle's president, Mark Hurd, made headlines for setting up a Twitter account (@MarkVHurd)--and he still hasn't sent a single tweet. Way to set a great example for the troops, Mark! And never mind not protecting and championing the most visible employee Oracle had on social media. That speaks volumes for your character as well...and lack of understanding of the sea change happening in communications.

    As Michael De Groot said, big corporations are strangling themselves. I see this daily in my consulting practice. Smart, courageous people will continue to build their personal brands and demonstrate their passion, even at the risk of being fired.

    Brandon Uttley | March 2014 | Charlotte

  • 6.It's a shame when older companies acquire newer companies for innovation, the inertia of arcane in-house legal policies and the interpretation of those policies crush the spirit of innovation that the company paid a premium for. Oracle's misguided decision is the modern marketing community's gain. Best of luck in your new endevour Jill.

    David LaBerge | March 2014 | San Jose, CA

  • 7.I think policy should be determined by the situation of the individual employer. If certain contacts are not permissible situation should be clarified

    Allan Garske | March 2014 | Baltimore

  • 8.Shel, thanks for sharing the story, and Jill - so sorry to hear this. Oracle just fired its top social media expert. The company needn't worry about competitors; it will implode of its own doing if it doesn't figure out how to market in the social age and encourage, rather than fire people for, their professional social media activity.

    Tom Pick | March 2014 | Minneapolis

  • 9.Good post, Shel. Oracle is well known for being a prickly company to work for and to work with. It's a hierarchical culture that believes in following the rules, even when the rules don't make sense.

    I first became aware of Jill in an interview Michael Procopio did with her on his FIR show. I was impressed with her intelligence and social savvy. Oracle needs more communicators like her. It seems to me the company has shot itself in the foot with this knee-jerk reaction.

    Paul Gillin | March 2014 | United States

  • 10.I worked at Cisco in marketing and can tell you that the social media policy is a deterrent to having people use social media. It sounds scary to most people who are going to take a lot of encouraging to dip their toe into something new.

    So while you call out these companies as doing social media for SME work, they are so far away from making it work it is not funny. It ends up being a contractor, or third party that posts content and replies because Cisco staff are either too busy or too scared. There is nothing personal, engaging or social about it.

    Paul McDevitt | April 2014 | Canada

  • 11.Shel,
    You may want to re-read the Ad Age piece. Ms.Rowley was quoted as saying she felt Oracle "didn't know or understand cloud, hadn't taken it seriously, and hadn't developed any great cloud products. It was a nightmare." If that's not objectionable, derogatory or inflammatory, I don't know what is. She only corrected herself in comments after the article was published.

    The problem here is not about "official spokesperson only" policies as I see it. The problem is when someone who is not an official spokesperson is a renegade who says objectional things that could be seen as derogatory about their company and potentially damaging to the company and they are published in the press. That appears to be the case with Ms. Rowley.

    Joe | April 2014

  • 12.Joe, I understand your point, but I've seen the emails Rowley received from HR. They are explicit in pointing to the policy of not talking to the press and make absolutely no mention of the contents of the interview. Also, it was the second such warning she received about speaking with the press.

    Shel Holtz | April 2014

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