Friday, December 14, 2012

Is Your Social Media Policy Illegal?

A TV Station's policy in Louisiana is certainly suspect.  When a viewer took meteorologist Rhonda A. Lee to task online for having short hair, rather than for any job-related issues, she defended herself. But instead of supporting Lee or even deleting the offensive Facebook post, Shreveport, Louisiana television station KTBS fired her, saying she had violated the company's unofficial social media policy.

Now, her fans are furious. Nearly 1,000 people have signed a petition at asking that KTBS-TV rehire Lee, saying she was victimized twice, once by the viewer who wrote the insensitive remarks "and again by KTBS-TV."

"Rhonda Lee deserves to have her job back," the petition reads. "Her eloquent response to the bigoted and sexist remarks of viewer Emmitt Vascocu were warranted. Employers such as KTBS-TV should stand by their on-air talent when they are verbally attacked based on their looks, values or merit."

"I would never have dreamed in a million years that I would get all this support," Rhonda Lee told the Daily News. "It's been a tough go at first to not be angry. But mostly I'm just sad. I genuinely loved where I worked. I loved my viewers. I made my home here."

The controversy started on October 1, when a viewer left a post on KTBS-TV's public Facebook page criticizing Lee's looks.

"the black lady that does the news is a very nice lady. the onlt [sic] thing is she needs to wear a wig or grow some more hair," wrote Emmitt Vascocu on October 1. "im not sure if she is a cancer patient. but still its not something myself that i think looks good on tv."

Days later, when KTBS-TV still hadn't respond to the Facebook post, Lee did.

"Hello Emmitt—I am the "black lady" to which you are referring. My name is Rhonda Lee. Nice to meet you," she wrote on October 6, in the comments. "I am sorry you don't like my ethnic hair. And no I don't have cancer."

"I am very proud of my African-American ancestry which includes my hair," Lee, 37, continued. "For your edification: traditionally our hair doesn't grow downward. It grows upward. Many Black women use strong straightening agents in order to achieve a more European grade of hair and that is their choice. However in my case I don't find it necessary. I'm very proud of who I am and the standard of beauty I display. Women come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities, and levels of beauty. Showing little girls that being comfortable in the skin and HAIR God gave me is my contribution to society. Little girls (and boys for that matter) need to see that what you look like isn't a reason to not achieve their goals."

"Conforming to one standard isn't what being American is about and I hope you can embrace that," she concluded. "Thank you for your comment and have a great weekend and thank for watching."

But while other Facebook users lauded Lee for her polite and measured response—including Vascocu himself, who replied with "you are very right to be proud of where you are from and I do respect that" and later publicly apologized to Lee—her employer thought she had gone too far. After she politely responded to another racially tinged Facebook post on November 14, KTBS-TV fired her, citing "repeated violations" of the station's social media policy.

"Ms. Rhonda Lee was let go for repeatedly violating that procedure and after being warned multiple times of the consequences if her behavior continued," KTBS-TV executives said in a statement posted on Facebook on Tuesday, after Lee appeared on CNN. "Rhonda Lee was not dismissed for her appearance or defending her appearance. She was fired for continuing to violate company procedure."

Lee told the Maynard Institute's "Journal-isms" blog that she had a meeting with KTBS-TV's news director and general manager on Friday, "trying to get my job back."

"They told me the policy I violated isn't written down, but was mentioned in a newsroom meeting about a month-and-a-half prior. A meeting I didn't attend," she said. "So when I asked what rule did I break there isn't anything to point to."

She has "yet to see this policy," she told CNN.

In response, KTBS-TV posted on Facebook an edited version of a company memo that was sent out on August 30.

"When we see complaints from viewers, it's best not to respond at all," the email read. "Even if our immediate reaction response to the complaint were exactly what it should be, it still leaves us open to what has a huge opportunity to become an argument." Employees were urged to have viewers contact the station instead. "Once again," the email states, "this is the only proper response."

Lee told CNN that she did see the email—which clearly states in the first paragraph that it is "guidance" and "more of a starting point for a 'Social Media Best Practices' policy, not the policy itself"—but feels she did not break any rule.

"I feel like I was being punished for defending myself," she told CNN. "Whereas other people are given platforms, I was given a pink slip instead."

The controversial posts are still up on the station's Facebook page and, adding insult to injury, KTBS-TV even gave Vascocu's original post criticizing Lee a thumbs up.

This isn't the first time that Lee's hairstyle has affected her job. "I've even had a news director once say that my hair was too aggressive for Sacramento, so I wasn't even allowed to interview at that point," she told CNN. "It's been an interesting journey with my hair."

In May, Lee filed a lawsuit against Austin TV station KXAN, where she said that she was "repeatedly subjected to crude and insensitive remarks about her race" and told that "she was not marketable to the audience the company was trying to reach, which was Caucasian males," the lawsuit alleges.

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