Better to walk than tweet in anger

02:06, May 19 2014

A long time ago I was lucky enough to work for Rodney Cook when he was head of AMP in New Zealand. An irreverent, smart and ingenious actuary turned chief executive, the gay Australian was the enfant terrible of the fusty AMP empire and a great guy to work for.

As well as managing the New Zealand face of AMP's massive demutualisation, Cook breathed new life into the sleeping giant and showed that "mother amicus" could lift her skirts and dance a little. As well as financial services, he taught me more useful practical stuff about management of others and management of self.

One particular piece of advice that stuck with me was to never send a work email after 3pm on a Friday, particularly if you are annoyed. The chances are that your judgment is not going to be flash and it's tough to take back. Better to breathe deeply, close your Outlook and walk away from the machine.

It's good advice and has saved me from engaging my mouth before my brain was properly in gear more than once. I thought about Cook's advice last week when Justice Minister Judith Collins lashed out at TVNZ journalist Katie Bradford late on a Saturday night, calling her a liar on Twitter. She followed this up by implying in an interview with TV3 that Bradford had sought her ministerial help on a personal matter, and then seemed to dare a rival broadcaster to investigate.

Collins' nickname, "Crusher", was apparently coined by her own press secretary in 2009 when she proposed legislation to crush the cars of miscreant boy racers. The term stuck and since then she's developed or manufactured a reputation as a "hardball operator". Depending on your perspective, this means she is seen either as a courageous terrier or a dogged bully.

Ironically, Collins is also the force behind the Harmful Digital Communications Bill (also known as the Cyber Bullying Bill) which is proceeding through Parliament apace. The bill sets the rules of engagement for how New Zealanders can express themselves online and seek redress when expression causes serious harm.


Once law, it will mean that if someone posts something online that is defamatory about you, discloses your personal information or causes you significant harm, you will have legal remedy and an "approved agency" to go in to bat for you.

At first blush, calling a person a liar and disclosing potentially personal information are exactly the sorts of things the Harmful Digital Communications Bill could apply to. Mind you, in this case, Collins' smart apology would prevent any need to refer the matter to the approved agency mandated by the bill.

This public demonstration of what can happen when a distraught person voices their concerns to the whole world through a frictionless but archived global network teaches us some things.

THE first is how social media can move from witty and smart banter, to mean and ugly attacks in a nanosecond. For all the talk of social media experts, the fact is no-one controls social media and there are no dress rehearsals. The whole thing is a tragi-comedy broadcast in real time. That's what's so irresistible about it.

The risk-averse simply use it as a monologue mechanism, distributing titbits of information or opening windows on their life without entering into dialogue or disagreement. Prime Minister John Key is a great example, with over 100,000 followers on Twitter and 2400 tweets celebrating everyday Kiwis and plugging party-aligned messages.

Those with a greater appetite for risk use it like a soapbox at Speakers' Corner. The focus is yeasty, no-holds-barred debate complete with provocation, sarcasm and disturbance. A good example is Labour's Trevor Mallard, whose Twitter feed is a rich broth of allusions, sniping and incorrigible tales. What makes this style of free-balling engagement irresistible, is that a person's true personality shines through.

That's not necessarily a bad thing when you wear the infinitely flexible cloak of Opposition. But it can be absolutely unforgiving when you wear the more restrictive robes of a Cabinet minister.

The second lesson of the Bradford incident is that no matter how good the legislation is - and to be clear, Collins has supervised the creation of a good piece of legislation - a large number of false positives will froth up in its first few months.

Once people have a law and an agency they can go to when they feel wronged online, there is likely to be a bumpy transition period as the aggrieved work out where the line is drawn.

This means when the bill finally becomes law, it should start with a decent public information campaign about that line and practical advice to stay inside it. Such advice might include not posting after 3pm on a Friday or after 6pm following a political party conference.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an ecommerce manager and professional director. His Twitter handle is @modsta and he's unlikely to be invited to a political conference.