When Tweets Turn into News or, My Perez Hilton Moment

By January 6, 2011Media

I tweeted something yesterday that in hindsight, I regretted.

I was working in a coffeeshop and spotted one well-known public figure having lunch with another well-known public figure. To me, that kind of sighting is tweet-worthy. So I tweeted, providing names and location, even poking a bit of fun at myself for being a gossip tweeter. It was, as my friend Ashlyn said, my Perez Hilton moment.

Less than ten minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a news crew (videographer and reporter) enter the coffeeshop. At first I thought it was unrelated, then the reporter approached the pair and requested an interview.

I wanted to disappear. I felt terrible! I had no idea my tweet would result in such an invasion. Fortunately the reporter was polite as were the subjects of his interest. They politely declined his request and he left immediately, to my great relief.

I have worked with the media throughout my career in public relations and also as part of it, writing for a newspaper and on television as a social media expert. I regularly provide news ideas and information to members of the media and think I have a pretty good relationship with the local teams. I was surprised, then, that the reporter hadn’t direct messaged me on Twitter, where he clearly got the tip (or called, or e-mailed or smoke signaled).

What’s interesting is that I found myself amid the very issue I’d blogged about a few weeks ago in All the News that’s Fit to Tweet.

I learned something from this and I hope you will, too. In my case, yes, the media is paying attention to what I tweet, and I have a responsibility to make sure I’m anticipating reactions like yesterday’s attempted coverage. It’s likely I’ll never publicly tweet something like that again, unless, of course it is my intent to attract news coverage. This is a lesson for others as well — the media is paying attention to our tweets, and following up on those that seem like potential news — often without contacting the source.

I feel bad about unintentionally interrupting a private lunch between two public figures. I also feel bad that a reporter and camera-person wasted their time driving across town for a story that wasn’t a story.  If the reporter had contacted me, I would have steered him away, and tried to come up with another bit of news for him to use, instead.

It’ s a sticky issue, but a conversation I think needs to be opened. What do you think? Should I have refrained from tweeting, or should the reporter have contacted me?


  • Phil says:

    Thanks for being honest and open about your tweet. When I saw it yesterday I was surprised but I am glad to see this post, it shows your character. We all make mistakes “in the moment”. Chalk it up as a good learning experience and move on. Hope you have a great day.

  • John Heaney says:

    I respectfully disagree with your take. If two public figures are meeting in public, there should be no expectation of privacy or confidentiality. They should expect to be seen – even by a newsperson grabbing a cup of coffee themselves. I’ve had meetings that I wanted to remain private, so I conducted them in private venues, not in the middle of the town’s coffee shop.
    And, once you made the information public, the editor or producer had no obligation to contact the source of the tweet. It was now public information that anyone could act on or ignore. They simply chose to act in the hopes of getting a scoop. No harm.
    The lesson to be learned is that with virtually every person carrying a device that can operate as an immediate online publisher, camera and video camera, there should be no expectations of privacy in public venues.
    Love your blog. Keep up the excellent posts.

  • Marijean says:

    John, thank you — I’m clearly struggling with this and I guess on some level I felt bad about it because I feel friendly toward these two people (we know one another only casually). I suppose if didn’t know them at all I might feel differently. I did think that if they truly wanted to have a private lunch they were in the worst possible location to be unseen. Good thoughts and thank you so much for reading, and loving, this blog.

  • Kim C. says:

    Marijean -I could see myself in your exact same position, so I thank you for this post. In a similar vein, I once had a feature story published on a client who had started a new business, only to have the fire marshal show up 2 days later to inspect (it was a woodworking business) and require all sorts of expensive upgrades.

  • Ginger says:

    I’ve had to think about this a bit. I missed that tweet yesterday so I went back to look it up. Seeing those two men across the room having lunch is an okay tweet. I am quite certain that if they had real private matters to discuss they would be doing that in private. It’s noteworthy because they are legitimately interesting people in our community. The fact that they are having lunch together is no sign of good, bad or indifferent things to come. It is two highly recognized individuals sharing a meal and a good conversation probably.
    Now, I said noteworthy, not newsworthy. The fact that any reporter would run over there just because they were having lunch together tells me that it was a slow day in the Charlottesville news world. I have reporter acquaintences and I have never really discussed this sort of thing with them. I hope I am not being disrespectful to what they do because I value it. But I value that which is worth valuing. Not something that is a waste of my time because a story needs to be created. I feel like this is one of those situations that sheds bad light on the press, not on your tweet.
    I believe that John is right in that everyone should be aware of how public life is these days. I’m sure those two men are. I am sure the reporter in question had intentions of doing his job well. For me personally, I would not have disrupted those two men having lunch together. Seems less than eventful and rude.

  • Ken Mueller says:

    This is a tough one. My inclination would be to do the same thing you did. I checked back and noticed that these local figures were politicians, and I’m not sure why, but in my mind, that makes your tweet more acceptable. (Don’t ask me to justify that…but in my mind it has something to do with being public, elected officials, etc).

    But the overriding issue here is really that of how Twitter and SM are changing the way we live our lives. Mitch Joel talked about this today in his blog re: how SM has changed the way we gather and report news.


    In effect, we are ALL reporters, and the mainstream media will be getting their story leads more and more from SM than other sources pretty soon.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. And I have to say, my favorite part of all this is that you were bothered by it and are thinking these things through. That to me, is a sign of character. Wish i saw more of it out there!

  • Dana says:

    I think it’s admirable that you’ve done a post on this. It brings up excellent points about privacy and etiquette in social media. On the flip side of things, I don’t think you should beat yourself up about it. Think about it this way: if Obama, or some famous actor, was at Cville Coffee, I bet a lot of patrons would have tweeted or posted something on Facebook. It makes one wonder, is that also crossing some sort of line? To the other poster’s points, where do you draw the line with privacy when a public figure visits a public place?

  • Marijean says:

    Thank you, Dana. You bring up some good points and you’re right; a celebrity in a public place is a celebrity in a public place — fair game. I guess what was hard for me is also that I try to be very intentional with all my communication and to have had an unexpected effect like that caught me off guard. It was a good lesson.

  • Mark O'Brien says:

    Marijean, I think this is a great blog post and discussion. It’s thought-provoking, and I love it. Nevertheless, I agree with John and others who say that what you did was not bad, per se.

    As you aptly described those whom you saw, they are public figures. Even courts have agreed that their expectation of privacy–especially in public–is limited compared to, say, you and I meeting up.

    I think it’s important to be careful in wanting to prevent a reporter from doing his job. Whether this was a newsworthy story is the media’s decision (whether we choose to read/watch/listen to the report is ours). What worries me is the thought that you wish the reporter had contacted you before arriving so that you could have intercepted them. In a way, it brings to mind the idea of prior restraint. I don’t mean to accuse you of such a sinister intent, but it’s a line that should not be crossed unintentionally or otherwise. In this case, the situation played out as it should have–the reporter approached the public figures, asked if they would have liked to do an interview, and they declined. As others have said, if the reporter happened to be in the store at the same time (not knowing of your tweet) and saw the public figures, he likely would have done the same thing.

    To me, the more pressing question is not whether what you did was right or wrong because of the media’s reaction. Instead, it’s whether your tweet was appropriate for you. In other words, did it fit the same intent you have behind all your other tweets? If your tweets are strictly business-related, then this was definitely off-topic. If, however, your tweets are about anything interesting you see in Charlottesville, then there’s no problem.

    Yes, this is a very good reminder that people are paying attention to what we do and say via social media. But I think it’s an even better reminder for any of us who use social media to be true to our intentions, our purpose, and ourselves when we stay connected.

    PS–Ken is so very right. You have character and integrity to be willing to discuss decisions such as these. I liked that about you in Leadership Charlottesville, and I’m glad to see it continue today 🙂

  • Marijean says:

    Aw, Mark — you made my day.
    I think you’re right — it’s something I had to process and I often do that through blog posts. It has been interesting to get others’ thoughts on this topic.
    I think I often straddle the line of all business and just being a member of the community in my online presence and I hope I do that successfully. I acknowledged, even at the time, that the tweet was somewhat out of character. I guess I was in a frisky mood that day!
    I think my intention with the reporter would have been, had he contacted me, just to tell him that it was a private lunch, not a press conference (in follow up with the reporter I learned that he headed there as directed by the news desk, and he WAS expecting a press conference). It would have been more about managing expectations than anything.

    I think we will continue to have occasional clashes between the social and the “traditional” as each elbows the other on a frequent basis.

    Great to hear from you! I hope all is well and you’ll return to C’ville for a visit one day!