Private Chats In Public Places

“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.”

Benjamin Franklin wrote those words more than 300 years ago, in the days or horses and printing presses. But, even back then, people understood the fragility of a reputation and the value of protecting it. Little did they know, how communication would evolve between then and now.

You see, humans are inherently fallible. But, these days — in this Orwellian “Big Brother” society we live in — one mistake of discussing something very private in public can lead to the end of a reputation, relationship or career. Sometimes it’s deserved. Many times it’s not.

I won’t use this post to debate and discuss the ethics and/or morality of whether it’s right for someone to have their lives ruined over something they say or do that ends up on social media. Instead, I want to put an exclamation mark on what has become our reality — primarily for those people/friends/clients who are still in the dark.

The fact is there’s been a real generation shift when it comes to the public’s desensitization on privacy issues. Through developments like social media and the prevalence of recording devices around us, people seem okay having private conversations in public. And, I’m not sure sometimes if they realize others are listening.

social media touch

Today, just about everyone has a mobile recording device (their phone) and the ability to ‘broadcast’ what they see and hear to a global audience instantaneously with platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, blogs, etc.

These “reporters” or “broadcasters” can be 6-year-olds with an iPad or 86-year-olds with a mobile phone. And, once they share what they see, hear or record, their ‘friends’ or ‘followers’ then share to their friends, and so on, and so on — infinitely. Social media is truly the largest ‘water cooler’ in the world….and it’s a water cooler with bite.

Here are just two examples of people who had no idea they were being filmed — and then broadcast on YouTube with millions of views.


Admittedly, these are extreme examples that involve recording devices.

The more likely scenario is someone overhearing a private business conversation. They aren’t recording it but they’re hearing it and likely sharing what they hear with others. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a coffee shop and overheard business people talking strategy — information that should only be discussed in a boardroom.

Despite what you may think — it seems you have no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place – whether it’s a restaurant and coffee shop or a park, street corner….or beach. Hell, even the garbage you put out on the street corner is fair game for people to pick through if they want.

Although I do watch Suits religiously, I am no lawyer — so I point you to a paper on the issue in the Canadian Journal of Law and Technology, where University of Ottawa Law professor Teresa Scassa states:

“Courts have frequently found that individuals have little or no expectation of privacy with respect to activities they carry out in public space. Those who have “voluntarily exposed themselves to public gaze” are said to have little basis for complaint if their behavior is observed by others.To frame it another way, “a person can have no reasonable expectation of privacy in what he or she knowingly exposes to the public, or to a section of the public, or abandons in a public place.”

So, when you’re sitting in that coffee shop or restaurant, you’re actually surrounded by “reporters”.

Or maybe you’re a teacher in the classroom and your students are recording you. This has happened and turned into real news events.

And, it’s not just ‘actions’ that get captured. Sometimes it’s people’s own social media activity that gets them attention. Some seem to forget that many social media posts are public conversations.

For example, in the recent Canadian election, a number of candidates got in trouble — with some having to resign over tweets and Facebook posts. It’s a trend that’s growing in politics the more years of social media we have behind us.

And, then there was the case of Justine Sacco, a Senior Director of Communications, who unknowingly started an international media storm just before she got on a plane — with this tweet.

Justine Sacco

By the time her plane landed in South Africa, Ms. Sacco was out of a job — and the public outrage became a news story around the world. That’s how fast it happens in the digital age. Sacco’s case is extreme and is even the subject of a book by Jon Ronson called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. The fact is had she muttered those culturally-insensitive words in a bar with Benjamin Franklin back in 1754, nothing would have happened.

So, this may seem like something from Captain Obvious at this point, but let me drive it home with a blunt force object: don’t say or do anything in public that you won’t want to show up on the evening news or front page — or even worse…..on the Internet.

Social media is way less forgiving than journalists.

More recommended blog posts:

30 Ways To Piss Off A Reporter

Lessons Learned – Harper’s “War on the Media”

There’s Much To Learn In The Political Matrix

Does “Off The Record” Exist?

How To Prepare For a Public Relations Crisis

The New Politician’s Guide To Not Getting Killed By Reporters

There Is Life After Journalism

The “Badger” Is Back!

Are Opposition Parties Still Stunned?