Friday, June 01, 2007

The Blogocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

Robert Lindeman is a Boston-area pediatrician who was recently in court fending off a malpractice suit brought by the parents of a 12 year old boy who died while under Lindeman's care.

Lindeman is also a blogger named Flea, with a fairly well known blog "drfleablog" (now - at least temporarily - taken down).

Which turned out to be a critical element in his malpractice trial  - one which ended up pushing Lindeman into a big, fat settlement.

According to yesterday's report by Jonathan Saltzman in The Boston Globe, the plaintiff's lawyer somehow figured out - did someone put a flea in her ear - that Lindeman was Flea. She asked him under oath whether this was the case.

Rather than have his "unvarnished views of lawyers, jurors, and the legal process" brought out in court for the jury to see, Lindeman chose to settle.

He had, apparently, used his blog to rally support for his side of the case, and was also providing blow by blow descriptions of what was happening in court, including mentions that the jurors had been caught snoozing and that the plaintiff's lawyer bit her fingernails. He had clever little nom de blog for lawyer Elizabeth Mulvey. In drfleablog, Mulvey was Clarissa Lunt. (Ho, ho! Not hard to see how that one translates into a coarse, misogynist term now is it? And that's the best that a Yalie who went to Columbia for med school can do?)

Lindeman also blogged about how he was being coached to act on the stand.

The consultant told him juries in medical malpractice cases base verdicts almost entirely on their view of a doctor's character.

"We've said it before, and we'll say it again: If the basis of this case is that Flea is an arrogant, uncaring jerk who maliciously neglected a patient, resulting in his death, the plaintiff will not win, period," he wrote. "As much of a cocky bastard that Flea may appear in the blogosphere, the readers who have a personal acquaintance with the real 3-D doctor understand how such an approach cannot succeed."

Apparently, it was posts like this which Lindeman's lawyers felt might do some harm.

As much as it might seem like just plain bad taste (or complete callousness) to be flaming around in your blog about a case you were involved with in which a child died, it also turned out to be not such a smart thing to do.

There are some lessons here for those of us who blog about our business, who use anecdotes from our experience, and who may be tempted to use telling little details about our colleagues and clients.

  • Don't write about current work or client situations in the heat of the battle. If you want to make sure you get all the material down while it's still current, write it up but don't post it. Wait until the battle has played out and the story's clearer. Blog about something in the moment and you may regret it the morning after.
  • When blogging about real people in a real situation that you've experienced, avoid use of physical characteristics or habits that would allow someone to recognize themselves or others. Give the people you're writing about cover - and yourself some deniability. I only use real names when I'm mentioning a friend or relative who will get a kick out of the mention (first names only). I may also use real names when I'm referring to something that's in the news or referenced in a blog or news article, or when the person I'm writing about is kinda-sorta famous. (When I blog about my experience at Wang Labs, I wouldn't hesitate to use Dr. Wang's name if it were relevant, or that of John Chamber's, who worked at Wang for a while. I wouldn't be apt to use the name of anyone else there, unless it was a friendly mention.)
  • Avoid at all costs "clever" names like Clarissa Lunt. Something like that just makes you look like a jerk.
  • If you're still working for a company and/or a client, you might also want to disguise the giveaway details here, too, especially if you're writing something that is less than flattering about a situation. (After the fact, you might want to be more open. Or not. Over on my other blog, Pink Slip, I often mention the names of the companies I worked at. For the most part, they're out of business. I would not use the name of a client company I've worked with unless it were 100% relevant to the story. And then I'd let the client know I was making them blog-famous.)
  • Under no cases should you reveal anything  you learned under NDA, that you've been sworn to secrecy about, that can impact stock price - no matter how cleverly you disguise the situation.

I'd say that people or companies in the news are fair game. As are companies where, as I've said, mentioning the company is central to the point. (E.g., a blog on outstanding - or outstanding awful - customer service.)

As business bloggers, we should observe our own version of the Hippocratic Oath. First, do no harm. To our colleagues, to our companies, or to our clients. As so often happens in these situations, in harming our colleagues, companies, and clients, we'd really be harming ourselves.

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