Friday, October 23, 2009

Reputation Management: Penelope Trunk's Miscarriage Tweet

Penelope Trunk's Twitter post last month -- "I'm in a board meeting. Having a miscarriage. Thank goodness, because there's a fucked-up 3-week hoop-jump to have an abortion in Wisconsin." -- has generated a great deal of conversation, with of it related to "TMI" (too much information) and pro-choice/pro-life issues.

Narcissism aside (sooo many social networking posts are remarkably self-absorbed), what's most shocking to me about this revelation -- and the language used -- is that it was directed at a professional audience. Penelope Trunk, who provides career advice as "the brazen careerist," is setting a bad example for the people she wants to help. Let's take the personal shortcomings out of this (if you don't want to get pregnant, don't have unprotected sex) and focus on the example she set:
  • The language: No matter where you work, there are going to be people who are offended by the f-bomb. Smart people don't use it in a professional environment (and when your business involves using social networking tools such as Twitter to provide advice to professionals, you're dealing in a work environment whether you realize it or not).
  • The event: I understand that this is Trunk's style -- casual, freewheeling, counter-intuitive, yada yada -- but a miscarriage for most is a landmark event (good or bad). When you speak about it in a cavalier way, you cause pain to somebody who shared that experience, but felt a profound loss as a result. This means you've alienated many in your network.
  • The attitude: It's clear that this was an unwanted pregnancy. Got it. It's also clear that Trunk would have had an abortion. Whatever. I'm not passing judgment here but guess what: Others are. It's a safe bet that many of her "followers," as they're called on Twitter, are pro-life. This kind of comment had to offend them. It just had to. More followers lost.
In essence, Trunk has damaged her platform by damaging her reputation. If she consults for corporations, she's lost a lot of business. Not only is she a loose cannon -- Fortune 500s are not comfortable with this type of ... how you say ... unpredictability -- but employees at those corporations who have heard about this tweet are not going to be Trunk fans.

In subsequent media interviews, Trunk has tried to spin this into something that supports her business goals. She's talked about how miscarriages happen in the workplace all the time, that women won't be equal until they can talk openly about these issues, and so on. All she's done is dig a deeper hole. Her responses might endear her to some, but her attitude further alienates her from the women of mainstream America.

I have spoken to women's groups for years on the lighter side of gender differences and know firsthand that women have boundaries and you have to know and respect those boundaries. Trunk doesn't seem to get that. She could have recovered more quickly from this incredible faux paus by saying, quite simply, "I realize now that my comment was insensitive and inappropriate. I apologize to those I might have offended." Doing this would have taken the story out of the headlines, which is what most consultants to corporate America need and want. Trunk, however, sees it as a way to keep her name in the media limelight. Like Balloon Boy Falcon Heene's father, she thinks that "all publicity is good publicity."

It's not.

I understand that Penelope Trunk is "just being herself," but when you're in the business world, you sometimes have to put a lid on your personality to protect your reputation.

Do you think her business will suffer because of this?


Alice Anderson said...

Excellent advice. Even with delete functionality, things on the internet are still pretty permanent. I didn't read that tweet but if it's accurate, it sounds like it falls under the heading of "think before you post."

sasha said...
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