This article was published in the 2015 Auctioneer Magazine and used here by permission.
By Carl Carter, APR
You know the story, or some version of it. In the wake of the controversy over a new state law, a TV reporter asked a pizza store co-owner a hypothetical question that had nothing to do with the restaurant. Video of answer went viral on the Internet and millions pointed to it in outrage. It became so bad that the business had to close, at least for a while.
And here’s the scary part. Such episodes are becoming more common, affecting every kind of institution from international corporations to cities to mom & pop businesses. So far as I know, we haven’t seen high profile social media campaigns against any auction companies, but given the public nature of what we do, it’s probably just a matter of time.
Until the last couple of years, I’ve worried about this type of risk mainly in the context of news media. That risk still exists, but now a public shaming campaign can occur in minutes, with no help at all from media.
Keep in mind that there are people who have a vested interest in creating a scandal for your business – or mine, or anybody else’s. Most media web sites make money by selling ads, and that means they need lots of traffic. Nothing boosts a site’s numbers like a good outrage.
To make matters worse, it’s very difficult to predict what will go viral and make a business the subject of public shame. And once it happens, the damage can be difficult – perhaps even impossible – to clean up.
Here are a few situations that could put you at risk:
Security. Now and then, you need security at an auction. Sometimes there’s a dispute and a possibility that an ex-spouse, partner or family member might show up and try to disrupt the scene. If somebody posts a video of your guard cursing and tossing somebody out the door, you’ve got a major risk on your hands. Make sure anybody working for you upholds your standards for discreet, polite behavior.
Disgruntled Buyer or Seller. Now and then, things go wrong, and somebody wants to extract some revenge. Unfortunately, viral videos have been around a while, and people have figured out how to make one of their own. If you find yourself with somebody in your face screaming that you’ve done them wrong, assume they have somebody making a video of the whole thing. Your best bet is to say something like “we’ll talk after you cool off,” turn your back, and find a place to get out of sight of whoever is pointing a camera at you.
Offhand conversations by auction staff. For years, I’ve warned clients to be careful what they say when they might be overheard. The walls have always had ears, and now they have cameras too. A racist joke, a disrespectful comment about the seller (or a bidder), or a prediction of the outcome of an auction can all bite you. Make sure everyone working for you – clerical staff, bid assistants and anybody else – keeps it professional, whether they think anybody’s listening or not.
Injudicious social media postings. Plenty has been written about the dangers of inflammatory posting, especially on Facebook or Twitter. A lot of careers have been ended by a single tweet (though I’m not aware of any that have benefitted much by one). Realistically, this is a bigger problem if you’re famous, but your posts can still hurt you – badly. Most of the standard advice is good – stay away from politics, sex, race and other hot topics. Never post when you’re angry, or when you’ve been drinking.
Skeletons in your closet. Many – probably most – people have episodes in their lives they’re not especially proud of. A DUI, a bankruptcy, a lawsuit or a nasty divorce are common examples. Many of these leave breadcrumbs in public records that an angry associate, buyer or seller can obtain and post, and there’s very little you can do about it. About the best advice I can give is to manage your life and relationships in such a way that you don’t have people out there seeking to harm you.
Finally, it’s important to understand that you have little or no legal protection in the case of a public shaming campaign against you. Libel and privacy laws evolved for a pre-Internet world in which there was no instant sharing of inflammatory content. You might feel better if you threaten to sue somebody, but all the legal cards are stacked against you.