August 2, 2013

On Guy Kawasaki, an opportunity missed, and civility in America

You may be aware of the controversy that has arisen over Guy Kawasaki's appearance at the recent BlogHer conference in Chicago. There were apparently tweets that went out during the Q&A session following his address calling a specific comment of his "sexist." And things went downhill from there...

Guy Kawasaki, BlogHer 13 Keynote Speaker

To me, the overall issue isn't whether or not Mr. Kawasaki's comments were sexist. What I saw as I observed some of the online interactions after the fact was an important opportunity missed.

Guy Kawasaki is a highly visible, influential person on social media. He had the chance to set a positive example by engaging in civil discourse with those people who were uncomfortable with his comment(s).

It is natural to feel defensive when someone makes negative statements about you. Most people would likely be upset to be called "sexist" or have their comments classified as such.

There are a number of constructive ways one could choose to respond in this situation:

  • Invite a discussion with the parties who took issue with your statements, privately or publicly
  • Try to gain an understanding of differing opinions 
  • Share your position in a respectful manner
  • Demonstrate an interest in using the situation as an opportunity to expand your view
  • Make a public statement in response to the criticism

When a company, brand, or well-known business person like Mr. Kawasaki has someone saying less than flattering things about him, that is an opportunity. As a corporate communications and public relations professional who worked for several Fortune 500 companies in my former career, I often helped people like Mr. Kawasaki make the most of such situations.

He had the power to turn a negative into a positive. I watched with disappointment as he chose not to do so. What he did do was block individuals on Twitter who shared any negative or critical opinions about him. Not necessarily tweets that could be defined as attacks, or harassing, but dissenting opinions.

He also posted the following via his various social media accounts:

"Was I sexist at #BlogHer13? I don't think so."

His statement was accompanied by a link to an article on The Huffington Post written by a woman who works with him, Peg Fitzpatrick. She is a high profile social media professional who is well known and well liked.

Ms. Fitzpatrick's post was critical and condescending toward the woman she believed had started it all, whom she did not name. She tweeted she was using "my powers for good" by writing the piece, as she has "a much larger platform and online reach" than the woman she thought took offense to Mr. Kawasaki's comment.

Her intentions and actions could be interpreted differently, just as there was a varied response to Mr. Kawasaki's comments during the BlogHer presentation. Attorney Andrea Weckerle, founder of the non-profit organization CiviliNation, author of Civility in the Digital Age: How Companies and People Can Triumph Over Haters, Trolls, Bullies and Other Jerks and herself a past BlogHer presenter said:

"It's important to know your audience's sensitivities and trigger points. Also keep in mind that within even the same group, people will likely interpret statements differently depending on their own unique identity, values, and past experiences. That's what appears to be the case here, where some attendees took offense to what was said and how the keynote speaker expressed certain ideas, while others seemed unphased."

Multiple women came forward, believing it was them Ms. Fitzpatrick was referring to. They went on to detail their positions, explaining there wasn't just one comment they considered to be sexist, but several. Demonstrating the issue was perhaps larger than either Mr. Kawasaki or Ms. Fitzpatrick had anticipated.

She responded to most by saying, "No, I wasn't writing about you. I don't know who you are." And allegedly* blocked anyone who disagreed with her point of view. People across the web have drawn their own conclusions, taken sides and shared their positions. Some in a civil manner, many decidedly not.

For his part, by including a qualifier when sharing Ms. Fitzpatrick's post, rather than leaving the question open, Mr. Kawasaki indicated he was not interested in any discussion and appeared to dismiss the opinions of those who were concerned about his comments.

Together, they set a tone that encouraged their supporters to go on the offensive, whether that was their intention or not. And people did attack, in comments on the HuffPost piece, on Twitter, Google+, Reddit and across the web. The onslaught spread far and wide, expanding considerably from the original topic and target.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Kawasaki reached out privately to the individual to whom he had made the comment in question, the blogger behind Martinis and Minivans. He wanted to make sure she was not offended. She assured him she was not, and felt the whole thing had been blown out of proportion.

His public reaction to the controversy was considerably different. Which begs the question, why? Why not express concern overall about the way his comment(s) were construed by some and open the door to dialogue?

It doesn't matter how many people found his comments offensive or whether they are "right." Opinions were formed; they were not isolated. It doesn't matter whether Mr. Kawasaki and Ms. Fitzpatrick felt the concerns expressed were valid. "Perception is reality" is a rule many in PR choose to apply in these types of situations. That approach can go a long way, and by choosing a different route, I feel Mr. Kawasaki missed an important opportunity.

In a very public manner, he and Ms. Fitzpatrick appear to have tried to discredit those concerns, or at the very least dismissed them. Moreover, having opened the gate, they did not attempt to control or stop the flood that followed. Though likely any efforts on their part to do so would have failed, as the controversy has taken on a life of its own.

They are of course entitled to their opinions about the situation, and to voice them. It is the way in which they chose to do so I view as questionable. An unfortunate example set by two important social media figures. And as the ripples spread throughout the internet, we once again saw how ugly online behavior can get.

According to a recent survey conducted by public relations firm Weber Shandwick and public affairs firm Powell Tate, in partnership with KRC Research, 70% of Americans feel incivility has reached a crisis level. The same number think the Internet encourages uncivil behavior.

Leadership accountability. That's what I would have loved to have seen from Guy Kawasaki in this situation. It was the perfect opportunity, and he was in the position to demonstrate it. By all accounts he is a great leader and person. Even the individuals who felt some of his comments were sexist were quick to say they appreciate and value his knowledge, perspective and contributions. And that they were not attempting a character attack, but were looking to open a dialogue about a greater issue they feel exists in this country.

Ms. Kirkpatrick has a very solid reputation as well. I personally have had the opportunity to tweet with her, the interactions were positive and I greatly enjoy the content she creates and shares online. But given the nature of her work and her response to the situation, I found the title of her HuffPost piece more than a little ironic. The tone was very uncharacteristic considering her positive public persona.

The overall matter as I see it, and the one I would like to have discussed far more prominently and often is not sexism or feminism or even online behavior. It is the pervasive culture of intolerance in our society and the incivility it promotes. This can be seen in all manner of interaction, but viewed under a particularly bright light via the Internet.

Have we lost the ability to engage in a civil manner? This latest example is far from unique; it was simply more visible than most. And its impact was more widespread due to the high profiles of those involved. It demonstrates the great need for the CiviliNation Academy for Online Conflict Management, a movement spearheaded by Ms. Weckerle and currently undergoing a fundraising campaign. As far as I am concerned, it cannot be launched fast enough.

The time has long since come to bring civility back. Each of us has the opportunity, the power to lead by example, no matter our reach. One person at a time demonstrating how civil discourse is possible in your day to day actions. Be they high profile or not.

*After reaching out to Ms. Kirkpatrick directly so she could have the opportunity to respond to this post, she clarified that she only blocked people "who were cursing, rude or disrespectful." That approach is very much in line with the principles of The Mom Pledge! I appreciate her contribution to the conversation.

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