Today’s guest post is by Allen Mireles.

Recently a story broke about Facebook and privacy breeches.

“Oh no,” you groan.

“Not another stupid Facebook privacy post. Didn’t we just read something like that over the holidays with Zuckerberg’s sister and some photos?”

We did and you’re right.

Yet this particular Facebook privacy story has an interesting twist.

For brands it serves as one more cautionary tale about the importance and value of crisis communications planning and of taking the time to think strategically (even if it’s only a few minutes) before responding to comments in social media.

For the rest of us, it also highlights the importance of being mindful of what you share in social media, no matter what the settings, no matter how private the group.

Post at Your Peril

The Google memory is infinite as they say.

Apparently, Storify, the popular online service that lets users easily collect and share social media updates, allows users to post updates made in private groups to public Storify feeds.

As described by AGBeat, “… users can bypass privacy settings and publicly share Facebook status updates from private users as well as from within private groups. The story has technologists and laypeople, alike, considering the value of online privacy, some asking if the ability to publish private statuses crosses a line.”

So people in private Facebook groups, or with their settings locked down as tightly as possible, can find their comments shared publicly, without their knowledge or permission and with no warning or notification? Yikes!

The AGBeat post, which went live at 6:20AM on January 18th, sparked a lively discussion in the blog’s comments section as well as on Twitter and Facebook. At 7:21 AM, as the buzz began to build, Burt Herman, the co-founder of Storify quickly commented and then took to Twitter to explain his company’s position.

The Blame Game

His early statements sounded defensive and were interpreted by many to place the responsibility for the public sharing of private information squarely in the user. Storify, he asserted, was doing nothing wrong.

This isn’t a technology issue as much as an etiquette issue. Now that everyone has the power to easily publish to the whole world, we all need to think about how to use that power…It’s up to you to decide what to share online, and whether to trust the people who can see what you share.

Except that using the Storify app is making it possible for your information to be shared without your knowledge or consent. Even inadvertently by users who didn’t realize the information was publishing to their Storify timelines. Or, as in founder and director of the Artful Media Group, Julie Pippert’s case, sharing a private Facebook update without realizing it had been private.

Herman, went on to direct readers to a post on the Storify blog, which stated, “Storify does not make anything public that hasn’t been collected by a user and published in a story. Also, Storify users do NOT have access to content on the web that they couldn’t otherwise see themselves.”

It’s Not Me, It’s You

According to Herman’s post, users can indeed collect text, photos, and video from all over the web, including Facebook. And, including media that may not have been intended for a wider audience. He states it is up to the user himself to make the decision about whether or not to publish information more publicly than the original author may have intended. Herman likens the ability to share using the Storify app, to obtaining information by copying and pasting or taking a screenshot.

However well meaning his comments, Herman’s stance was interpreted by many to fall far short of the mark. Veteran blogger and author, Danny Brown, pointed out the flaw in this argument stating people can make mistakes. Technology should be smarter and “..the “power” effected by being able to share easily needs to be countered by the ability to identify whether that content should be shared.”

Well known, blogger and general manager of Internet Media Labs, Amy Vernon was active on Twitter in conversations with Herman and other and then, (using Storify as her platform), was quick to point out the original AGBeat story had simply worked to expose a hole in online privacy.

Online Crisis Tips

So how might this have been done differently?

What if, knowing the public’s sensitivity toward privacy issues and the potential for missharing of information, the Storify team had waited to respond instead of jumping in an hour after the AGBeat post went live? Or worked with a crisis communications specialist prior to responding?

The story might have been reported entirely differently.

Bob LeDrew, founder of Canada’s Translucid Communications, offers sage advice for brands who may find themselves in similar situations:

  • Think carefully BEFORE you react. Be dispassionate; find a way to be objective. Put yourself in the position of the other person, and don’t let your emotions take over.
  • Consider reaching out offline before or during your online response. Twitter is not always the most useful way of having a long-form discussion. Perhaps you need the nuance of a phone call or an email exchange to inform your response to the criticism — whether you have to acknowledge an error or you’re right to think that the problem is not really there.
  • Even if you’ve taken a position on something, don’t hold on to it without carefully evaluating circumstances and facts.

As Bob LeDrew says in the conclusion of his post, the pace of social media discussion is not an excuse to not be thoughtful.

And for the rest of us, REMEMBER: Privacy settings are probably not as private as we might like to think.

Allen Mireles is vice president at Arment Dietrich and is based outside of Toledo. She has diverse expertise in healthcare IT, manufacturing, and education. You can follow her on Twitter at allenmirelesadd her to your circles on G+, link to her on LinkedIn, or friend her on Facebook.