Corporate Image vs. Right to Privacy http://www.insightmag.com/archive/200006199.shtml
06/19/2000 Corporate Image vs. Right to Privacy
By Kelly Patricia O Meara firstname.lastname@example.org
The case of a Coca-Cola manager who posted nude photos of himself on the Internet has fueled a heated debate about the distinction between corporate image and private activities.
What do you do if you re a Fortune 500 company that spends tens of millions of dollars a year to burnish your reputation with costly ads that promote your product as an all-American brand representing family values and wholesome fun and then you learn that one of your key employees is posting nude pictures of himself on the World Wide Web? Considering First Amendment issues and privacy arguments that what somebody does outside the office is none of your business, what can you do? What should you do?
Case in point: Coca-Cola, the ultimate squeaky-clean brand name. One day a call comes into its international headquarters in Atlanta from a reporter. Does a Mister X work for you? Can you confirm that he's a senior employee? Are you aware of any nude pictures of him posted on the Internet? What is the policy of Coca-Cola about such behavior by its employees? Do you have a statement?
What would you do? If you are Coca-Cola, you express shock, hem and haw, then carefully suggest to the reporter that you ll look into it, apparently nervous as the various division chiefs and corporate bosses huddle to figure out what to say, let alone what to do.
It's happening more often than one might think, and there are no clear rules of the road. A police officer who posed nude in Playboy was fired, because she was identified as a policewoman and wore something blue in the photo layout. But what happens when there is no direct link to the employer in the spread? Or when the nude pictures aren't in a controlled magazine behind the counter but are presented conspicuously where they might be encountered by children surfing the Internet?
What might competitors make of it? One can imagine the innovative ways a first-rate advertising agency might work the issue. Then there's the annual shareholders meeting, where one is certain to hear, What's our policy on this and what is being done to protect our valued name?
Coca-Cola was in the process of confirming employment status for one of its team managers when the soft-drink giant became aware of his private activities. Did shame take over? No, indeed. The manager tells Insight he considers himself a very regular and conventional person who just wanted to take a bit of a walk on the wild side at what he thought was a safe distance from his employer. It was only as a lark that he posted three nude photographs of himself on the Web, he tells Insight in a series of e-mails spanning several weeks.
Surprisingly, rather than state up front that this kind of activity is not acceptable, Kari Bjorhus, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, tells Insight, There isn t any reference to Coca-Cola or Coca-Cola products on the Website and it really isn't our concern since we're not connected to it. What employees do on their personal time, unless they re breaking the law, is their business. It isn t our business if it's his personal activity.
That said, others inside Coke apparently aren't happy. They have spoken to the manager. Yet officially, the soft-drink giant didn't say it is opposed to pornography, only that what folks do outside the office is of no concern.
Of course this is just the argument that the defenders of President Clinton have made. And debate about whether men and women in positions of power and authority have the right to separate their private and professional lives still is raging.
Janet Parshall of the Family Research Council, a Washington-based think tank dedicated to ensuring that the interests of the family are considered in the formation of public policy, tells Insight the two can't be separated.
The Internet is a billboard as much as anything, says Parshall. This man stepped into the public in this way to get a response. That is deviant behavior. If he were nude in a public rest room he'd be arrested, but because he is doing it on the Internet he thinks it isn't a crime. We used to call that kind of behavior indecent exposure.
Parshall says this is the monster issue that we don't want to talk about. Such behavior involves a minimization of his job, when as an employee he is an ambassador of the corporation. This is just the beginning. We knew the character of the president was in question when he was elected, but as a culture we ve told people that there is no right and wrong and anything goes.
What if a school principal were to participate in such behavior? In Fairfax County, Va., school employees may be dismissed for such violations as improper or immoral conduct that adversely affects the employee's responsibilities or the school system's mission, and action that brings the school system into disrepute, according to the employee handbook. Suppose a principal or teacher posted nude photographs on the Internet. While the board of education would decide the fate of the employee, the result likely would be based on the outcry of parents in the community. According to Paul Rainer, a spokesman for Fairfax County Schools, Each case is decided independently, but we do need to operate on a very high ethical plane. Isn t it hypocrisy to keep a president in office for behavior that would get a teacher fired? Might employees of publicly traded corporations such as Coca-Cola, that target advertising at young consumers, be held to the same standard as teachers? Thomas Szasz, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the State University of New York Medical Center in Syracuse, believes that what you are likely to get away with depends on how much power you have. Szasz says, Generally human beings are whole. But the line between what is public and what is private is like a river that separates two countries it keeps changing. Hypocrisy is the grease that lubricates society.… It is only part of a larger question of what is private and what is public, he says.
No employer in his right mind would have hired this guy a hundred years ago, but what is to be tolerated as moral in the marketplace is a collective decision of consumers. The long-term effect, of course, is that real morality can only be taught at home. It can t be taught by politicians or corporations, says the internationally respected psychiatrist.
Linda Hudson, a licensed counselor, family therapist and board member of the Atlanta-based National Council of Sex Addiction, tells Insight, In my experience it's pretty difficult to have any kind of separation between public and private life. According to Hudson, If you put [nude] photographs [of yourself] on the World Wide Web, that's a pretty good clue that this man is an exhibitionist. When someone exposes themself to the world, that means they want people to look at them. It's a turn on. This man may not be having problems exposing himself at work but, in a sex-addiction model, we would say the behavior and thinking pattern is distorted and the lines get so blurry it s a constant process of trying to get back into the moment.
The sex therapist says, President Clinton is a perfect example. What was amazing was that millions of Americans bought into the [private-public] separation theory because they wanted to believe that he was a good guy. They didn t want to have to deal with the fact that he lied and was manipulative. Clinton's thinking was so distorted that he thought people were coming on to him all the time. Kathleen Willey is a good example of the president building a story in his head that this woman wanted him. He was so into the fantasy and intrigue that, basically, he sexually accosted her. It wasn t difficult for sex therapists to see what was going on with him.
Speaking of the Coca-Cola case, Hudson says, They probably didn't have a clue about this employee and now they re just doing damage control.
Robert Butterworth, a child psychologist who has conducted extensive surveys focused on children and youth, social, political and trauma issues, says: What this guy is doing is irresponsible. It's not like he is going into his bedroom and pulling the shades. Certain jobs and professions have greater responsibility. When you re overexposing yourself to the world there is something wrong. If this man didn t know that this behavior was going to hurt his career he's stupid. You can t do a lark on the Internet. It's not like he decided to lay nude in his own backyard. He decided to lay nude in everyone s backyard.
According to Butterworth, What this guy is doing is exposing himself in public. What if he took off all his clothes and streaked across a field, how is this any different than what he's doing on the Internet? You just don t explore yourself in public like that and think there will be no consequences. His employer has one of the most visible images in the world. It s a youth-oriented product. Worse yet, there are no checks on this Website, so kids can get into it easily. As a psychologist I'd probably lose my license for such behavior. Now that we have this new technology we have to look at what is appropriate ethically. But this is new territory and it has lots of implications for our society.
Insight contacted a number of corporations including Coca-Cola's biggest competitor, PepsiCo Inc. and asked without mentioning names how they would respond to this kind of employee activity. None were willing to comment on what-if situations or to say whether they had experienced similar problems. Most have written rules and standards, but they do not directly address moral or ethical responsibility outside the workplace or mention conduct on the World Wide Web.
In the Coca-Cola case there appears to have been a disconnect between the manager and his em-ployers. For instance, according to Bjorhus, when Coca-Cola spoke to the manager about the photos of him on a triple-X-rated porn site, company officials were told he doesn t know how the photos ended up on the Internet. The manager apologized and was sorry if it caused the company any difficulties. In what appeared to be an attempt to minimize his role in the company, Bjorhus says she believes the employee s position was as a junior-level manager for one of the company s soda brands.
This is a very different story from the one the manager told Insight. In fact, during four weeks in which e-mails were exchanged between the Coca-Cola executive and in an interview with Insight, he made it clear that it was he who had posted the photos on the Website. And remorseful as he may be about the photographs being found on the Internet, he has not requested that they be removed. When Insight inquired about this, he replied: I don't think I will ask to have them taken down from the site that seems a bit cowardly now. Two weeks later, when questioned why the photos still were posted on the Website, the Coke executive sounded as dejected as President Clinton claiming that he was not ashamed of having been impeached because it meant he had saved the Constitution. As the soft-drink manager put it: I have deliberated a lot about that and haven t yet asked they be pulled down because I was concerned that they might be characterized as ‘porn or obscene in the story you said you might do and I do not believe that nudity is either of those two.
The manager further explained, I was thinking it might actually be best to leave them up so that if the story is run, people who see the pictures would realize they really are nothing so scandalous and salacious as the terms ‘porn or ‘obscene would indicate. Despite Insight s request that he provide a photograph of himself in clothes to use for publication,he demurred, saying: If you are going to do this to me, then I think you should have the guts to use one of the nude pictures.
When asked again, a Coke executive said they didn t see any harm in the pictures. It's not like he s breaking any laws. Moreover, the official said, It s his private business.
What would the standard be for a federal employee including a member of Congress or of the executive branch regarding immoral/ unethical behavior outside the workplace? In fact, in the House Ethics Manual, listed under the Code of Ethics for Government Service, there is just one guideline that even comes close to touching the issue: Any person in Government service should adhere to the highest moral principles.
Who decides? Members of Congress are judged in problem cases by their peers in the House and Senate and sentenced during elections by their constituents back home. While there are no known cases of members of Congress being subjected to scrutiny for posting questionable material on the Internet either in or outside the office congressional aides have been summarily dismissed for viewing pornographic material on office computers.
As public citizens and quasigovernmental entities, corporations also have a public obligation. But they are judged in the marketplace. Maybe, speculates Parshall, the naked-manager case will be a wake-up call. Corporations listen to them. Money doesn t talk, it shouts. The power of the dollar is a very effective tool and if a corporation turns a blind eye and deaf ear to morality, people will walk away. As a consumer, I would run from a product knowing that this is not the kind of corporation I want to support with my money. It s called trickle-down morality.
In the end, she says, consumers have to ask themselves if the corporation is looking the other way on issues. Are they more interested in profit than principle? If so, then they don t need my dollars. The bottom line here is that this person is not a good ambassador for this corporation when he put his private life into the public domain.
As for the manager, it appears that he fully understands the impact of his bit of a walk on the wild side.
He tells Insight: I suppose I would do things differently if I had thought/known someone who knew me would find/see the pictures. One thing I have learned is that once the pictures are out, there s no getting them back.
That walk on the wild side of the Internet might offer lessons for everyone concerned.