Do I need to apologize and destroy all evidence?
May 16, 2014 8:34 AM   Subscribe

As the person handling promotion for a large event, I videotaped a talk that was free and open to the public. The talk was a part of this event. Part of my job has been to record post about the event, pics, snippets of video, etc. But then the speaker lost it. Did I do something terribly wrong?

When I came in a speaker was already talking. This was in a place of business. The talk was open to the public. There was no sign posted that videotaping was not allowed. I hadn't planned to videotape it or I would have said something in advance. I didn't ask if I could videotape since it was already underway.

I very visibly videotaped the speakers with my iPhone for about 15 minutes. (the speakers could easily see me in the small room). No one ever told me to stop. The talk got emotional. I had no idea this would be the case. I continued videotaping because I thought, This is an amazing, possibly historic moment that should be recorded for posterity.

I was going to get the info of the speakers before I left to get their names and make sure it was okay to use the videotape in our promotional stuff, but suddenly my ride was leaving to catch another event so I had to go, too. My plan was to contact the business owner the next day for their info.

As I was leaving the owner of the business, who had been up with the speakers, came over and stopped me. He said they hadn't wanted any videotaping and they wanted to see anything before it goes out. I said that was fine, that I wasn't press, but PR for the event, and I gave them my info and they gave me theirs. Shortly, one of the speakers called the director of the event (of which the talk was a part) and blew up at him, accusing the both of us of being disrespectful.

I've researched this online. It looks like what I did falls within the law. And I thought what I was doing fell within the bounds of my job description. The director isn't upset with me but he needs this smoothed over. I suspect the speaker blew up because he is in the midst of litigation having to do with the subject of the talk (which I didn't know until afterwards).

Did I act disrespectfully? Insensitively? Should I apologize? We've already offered to erase the footage. What's the most professional way to handle this?

Thanks for any advice you have, Mefites.
posted by lillian.elmtree to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
you were just doing your job. don't apologize and don't erase the footage. the speaker has a personal problem that he needs to address with his own means.
posted by bruce at 8:43 AM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, I think you should apologize to the speaker. Tell them that you mistakenly thought that videotaping the event fell within your job description, but that you should have checked in with them before, and you're sorry that you didn't. Explain that the footage will be deleted (if you're ready to do that) and ask if there's anything else you can do to make it right. Then thank the speaker again for being a part of the program, and move on. Please do not mention the 'legality' of what you've done; it's a distraction and makes you sound overly defensive - this is a work conflict, and lots of things are inappropriate at work without being outright illegal.

I can't say for sure that you acted insensitively or disrespectfully without having been in the room and gotten a feel for the overall tone, but I would say you acted somewhat sloppily. Getting to the event late and then rushing off before checking in afterwards isn't the most professional way to behave. And yes, I generally think it is polite to ask someone before you film them. We are cruising towards a Google-glass-apocalypse where everyone's recording all the time, but we aren't there yet, and in the meantime, people are actually more sensitive about being filmed, given how quickly videos can now go viral. Next time, ask.

All that said, it sounds like the person who is most out of line here is the speaker. "Blowing up" in a professional setting is pretty much always unnecessary. He could have achieved the exact same aim by speaking reasonably and respectfully to your director and asking you to delete the footage. No harm, no foul.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:43 AM on May 16, 2014 [23 favorites]

It doesn't matter if you acted disrespectfully or insensitively. The most professional way to handle it is to apologize anyway.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:43 AM on May 16, 2014 [14 favorites]

Even if an event is open to the public, it's completely at the discretion of the speaker or event host to decide whether videotaping is allowed. It's unfortunate that they didn't communicate that to you as the PR rep, but you shouldn't have assumed that the lack of a Don't sign meant Do.

It sounds like an honest misunderstanding but yes, you should apologize. Yes, you should erase the footage. And next time, ask explicitly for permission rather than forgiveness.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:44 AM on May 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yeah, you're almost certainly right that you didn't break the law but this was definitely disrespectful. Recording something with an iPhone isn't exactly professional-level behavior in any circumstance, so it's hard to defend this as some sort of official job-related thing, since the recording was going to be so low quality anyway. You definitely should have asked permission before, and you 100% definitely should have said something after, especially after things got emotional. Apologize and do this better in the future.
posted by brainmouse at 8:47 AM on May 16, 2014 [6 favorites]

Recording of speakers at events by the organizers is generally cleared with the speaker before it's done. Clearly it wasn't in this case. Apologize, delete the video, and get permission next time.
posted by Jairus at 8:50 AM on May 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oh, I looked back at your post history - were you doing PR at the event as a volunteer? While I still stand by the basic substance of my answer (you should go ahead and apologize; next time, check in) that does change the spirit of my answer to a certain extent. The person who is actually employed by the organization - in this case, the director -has an obligation here to step up for you, and not to throw you under the bus to satisfy an angry speaker. I'm glad he's not upset with you, but I hope he also thanks you for working to smooth over this miscommunication, and puts some structures in place so that your obligations are clearer going forward. Don't beat yourself up too hard - you're learning the ropes in what is probably a pretty chaotic situation, and good on you for giving away your time to a worthy cause.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:54 AM on May 16, 2014 [15 favorites]

When I came in a speaker was already talking...There was no sign posted that videotaping was not allowed.

So, it's possible the speaker made an announcement at the beginning that you missed re recording the event?

I'm in camp apologize and delete. Yes, someone in the midst of litigation should be more careful about public remarks; that was unprofessional on their part. But unless you want to appear unprofessional, let it go.
posted by melissasaurus at 8:54 AM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not to pile on, but yes: this was disrespectful, insensitive, and unprofessional.

It's not really relevant that event was public - you should still get speakers' permission before recording them in any way. They should know in what medium they'll be recorded (audio or audio and video) and how the footage will be shared. Erase the footage and apologize profusely.

I'll also add that showing up late and then rushing out doesn't look good and doesn't instill confidence. Little things like that really change how you're perceived and how people react to seemingly small, honest mistakes.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 8:55 AM on May 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

Plan ahead next time, and apologize now. And maybe suggest to your boss an overhaul for how these events are organized? It makes it more difficult for you to do your job if no one had gotten the speakers consent for taping and of no one knows there's a court case.
posted by spunweb at 8:56 AM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm getting to the point of expecting talks and conference proceedings and such to be video recorded, but by someone who obviously is official (professional equipment) or who approaches me beforehand to confirm that recording will be taking place. Ideally, the organizers of the event would confirm well in advance that it will be recorded. I would consider it at the very least impolite for someone to walk in late, record with an iPhone, and then not follow up with me afterward.

It sounds like there was poor communication between the event organizers and the venue, and it's unfortunate that you got caught up in that. It's also unfortunate that the speaker in question lost his temper. Apologize, delete the footage, and talk to whoever oversees your work about things that can be done in the future to make sure you don't get put in this position again.
posted by EvaDestruction at 8:59 AM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

The most professional way to handle this is to apologize for the poor planning, communication, and timing, because even if the speaker blew up at you and acted unprofessionally, that doesn't make the poor planning and communication on your part vanish.
posted by rtha at 8:59 AM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Speakers should generally be informed if an event will be recorded, but blowing up is unneeded. You weren't wrong to take the video, but I would not publish it without permission.
posted by theora55 at 9:07 AM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Public speaking does not have a default agreement as to the conditions of whether the events can be recorded or in what format or as to the style of attribution. So it is possible that everything can be out in the open or you might have a meeting subject to, for example, the Chatham House rule (or some informal variant), wherein the meeting has value to the attendees in terms of what is said but the speakers do not want it recorded that they have said particular things. So it is not enough to say that this is some sort of issue for the speaker, the speaker might well be speaking under certain conditions.

In future you need to try and know before you go in whether the speaker is willing to talk on the record, if you really can't get permission beforehand then you need to get it before you release the record.
posted by biffa at 9:18 AM on May 16, 2014

The speaker should not have blown up at you, but that's the only thing they did wrong and it pales in comparison.

You and the organizers made all the other mistakes -- you inform speakers ahead of time that things will be filmed for promotional purposes and ask them ahead of time to okay or not okay it, you show up early (instead of interrupting the talk) and don't rush off afterwards for anything but a medical emergency (taxis are great for this), especially when you haven't asked in advance for the things to be taped and it got unexpectedly emotional.

You apologise. The director apologises. You then ask for approval from the speaker and the business owner about making the video public.
posted by jeather at 9:27 AM on May 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Yep. Never record a speaker without asking permission first. What people are willing to say in front of a room full of people (even at an event totally open to the public) is completely different than what they're willing to have recorded and shared on the internet for posterity.

If you'll be working more PR and setting up more events, this should be a standard thing you ask the speaker about ahead of time. Apologize, delete the recording, and now you know for the future.
posted by MsMolly at 9:33 AM on May 16, 2014

If the speaker was discussing a topic in which he's currently involved in litigation, and in the process of that discussion more or less lost his shit and went off the rails as you describe, then I'd delete everything fast, come up with some strong reason for deleting it based on existing policy for your organization, and pray to god the opposing legal team doesn't get wind of this and come after the video.
posted by Naberius at 9:35 AM on May 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

I can't speak to the legality of it, but in my social circles videotaping someone without permission is very bad form. I used to do a little bit of indie journalism/recording-stuff-for-posterity was absolutely standard to ask, and what's more, to try to avoid filming people other than those who had given their permission.

Why? That person might have been telling a story which was safe to tell a small crowd but which they did not feel comfortable spreading around in the mass media, for one thing - this is particularly true when people tell intense personal stories, as of survival as a refugee or an undocumented person, etc. This person might have a stalker. This person might be going to reveal something about their gender or sexuality or even merely political opinions which would imperil their job or their family relationships. This person does not know how you'll use the footage - even if you have the best good will in the world, it's easy to use footage misleadingly or in a way that tokenizes the speaker. People of ill will sometimes also steal words, ideas and anecdotes and claim them as their own. This is particularly problematic when there is a power disparity between the speaker and the videographer.

There is a world of difference between "twenty people in this particular social scene heard this talk and maybe one or two will blog about it" and "random PR person filmed this talk, has the footage and may prove to be a total loose cannon". They don't know you. They don't know how securely you store your data, or when you might decide to use this as part of a portfolio.

One of the reasons for the work I did briefly was so that there would be someone enmeshed in our community who could be trusted - people knew who I was, or knew someone who knew me, and I was accountable to a larger group. I had little incentive to fuck people over. Even so, several times I accidentally posted [luckily minor] stuff that people did not want spread around these our interwebs.

Look, sure, it's legal to do whatever the hell. But the law isn't the limit of morality - we ought to strive to do better than the law, to be more compassionate and more responsible.
posted by Frowner at 9:36 AM on May 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

As a speaker, I prefer you get my permission before taping me, and insist you get my permission before taping any talk I give unless I have signed a blanket release for the event. You were in the wrong here and should apologise to the speaker.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:38 AM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

You didn't really do anything wrong. You may want to apologize in order to maintain professional relationships.

Here's why I think, based on the information provided, that what you did wasn't "wrong," in any sense, though probably imprudent:

Part of my job has been to record post about the event, pics, snippets of video, etc.

You imply that your job was to document the event. If that's true, taking video certainly qualifies.

The talk was open to the public.

If I'm speaking at a public event, I have to assume that I can be recorded on any medium. There is no expectation of privacy at all at a public event. If I'm speaking at a public event and my preference is that nobody document it, I can ask that people refrain from taking video as a courtesy. But they are free to do as they want. At a public event.

I very visibly videotaped the speakers with my iPhone for about 15 minutes. (the speakers could easily see me in the small room). No one ever told me to stop.

Well, they kind of did, in the sense that they ran after you afterwards. The event organizers could have been more proactive if they really cared about what you were doing.

My plan was to contact the business owner the next day for their info.

That would have been a good backstop in case they hadn't come after you, but it would have been more prudent to plan to contact the business owner to verify theat they're cool with you releasing your video.

I've been a speaker and an attendee at too many public events to count (community meetings, town halls, political rallies, you name it). And the assumption is that if you don't want to be recorded, you need to be proactive about pre-empting it, because there is no default expectation that you won't be recorded.

If you are concerned about being recorded, then you control admission, watch the audience carefully, and intervene when you see someone recording and tell them to either stop or leave because this is a private event. Nobody really has standing to demand that you not record a public event. (This is in the US. YMMV).
posted by univac at 9:39 AM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

If you were a member of the press, I think you'd have a stronger case, but then the speakers would have known media was in attendance and that they were on the record. But as a volunteer PR person? If you want to stay in these circles and go to more events, apologize and don't pass the video around or post it online.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:43 AM on May 16, 2014

Also, in research circles it's often considered bad form to tape a talk without permission, particularly a small informal talk, as the speaker may be sharing current work with the understanding that no one in the room is going to go "a-ha, I guess I will attempt to beat you to publication" or something. This is probably true for lots of informal specialist settings as well.
posted by Frowner at 9:45 AM on May 16, 2014

Here is an example checklist and legal permission forms from a major publisher. This is a working oexample you can follow of how these things are professionally and legally managed.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:45 AM on May 16, 2014

That person might have been telling a story which was safe to tell a small crowd...

in research circles it's often considered bad form to tape a talk without permission, particularly a small informal talk...


"...a large event, I videotaped a talk that was free and open to the public"

My sense is a) apologize; b) don't publicize, particularly since you could cause follow-on problems for yourself due to the litigation they're engaged in; c) save it safely offline (thumb drive or something) for posterity. You never know if the litigation becomes notorious, everybody dies, and there is interest in the backstory in the future, perhaps after *you're* dead.
posted by rhizome at 10:10 AM on May 16, 2014

Every time I've been recorded speaking, they have always had pretty serious consent forms to sign in advance. It's worth it. This is also NOT YOUR FAULT.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 10:17 AM on May 16, 2014

Isn't it the director's job to tell you how he wants this smoothed over? Ask him what he wants done with the video, and what you should say to the speaker. As a volunteer, this decision is above your pay grade.
posted by catalytics at 10:35 AM on May 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

If I'm speaking at a public event, I have to assume that I can be recorded on any medium. There is no expectation of privacy at all at a public event. If I'm speaking at a public event and my preference is that nobody document it, I can ask that people refrain from taking video as a courtesy. But they are free to do as they want. At a public event.

This isn't that - this is video that is being captured primarily for PR purposes and for future sales of an event. A lot of speaker contracts have stipulations around that (clearing first, final product authorization, etc.) I've dealt with speakers who, if you're sharing part of or all of their talk with a broader audience (streaming) or are using it commercially, expect a larger fee.

OP, I don't think you did anything wrong, but your director absolutely did in not clearing with the speaker that the talk was going to be filmed and used again in the future or for promotions. Whatever legal grounds they stand on depends on the contract and the expectations set by the director. It's their job to sort this out, not yours.
posted by rutabega at 10:41 AM on May 16, 2014

I don't think a talk open to the public means that videotaping is allowed. I recently was part of a small panel, but because of my employer policies, I had to say no videotaping (or file more paperwork, but it was a last minute request so I didn't). There was no sign that said no videotaping, but students were told that when they were coming in. So I would not assume that videotaping was allowed.

And yes, I would assume that anything I say in public could potentially be recorded. But there's a huge difference between the official PR recording and someone who shouldn't have been recording doing it.

But isn't the easiest thing to do just to apologize and then delete? Honestly, it seems like the political and correct thing to do, since the speaker clearly didn't want the recording.
posted by ethidda at 11:01 AM on May 16, 2014

I would say this handled disrespectfully and insensitively, and I think that it is also possible that there is also a chance that this is not legal, though it is impossible to tell without knowing more details. I also don't think you should beat yourself up about this - it sounds like you are still in a learning stage, and I think this could actually be a good experience professionally.

On legality: You state this was "an event open to the public," you also state that it was held "in a place of business." It needs to be remembered that just because a facility is open to the public, it should not necessarily be treated as a public space. It is illegal to photograph unknowing subjects in a public bathroom, for example Obviously, this was not a bathroom. Generally, it is legal to photograph inside premises open to the public, unless owners of those spaces prohibit photography. But there are instances where that may not be the case: this primer points out that the California Supreme Court upheld the right for employees having a conversation in an open workplace to pursue invasion of privacy claims against reporters who record those conversations. There are also laws regarding false light, misappropriation, right to publicity, etc. These laws also vary by state, or if images are used for commercial purposes. I wrote more here, and deleted it - as far as I know, your company had a contract in place, or checked this out, and all is a-ok. But this may be something to look into in more detail - even legal recordings can be used in illegal ways.

On insensitivity: Ignoring everything above, and assuming everything you did was 100% legal and ok, I think you assume too much when you state that the "speaker could see you and knew your were filming." If you do not do public speaking professionally, you may not have a good idea of what is really going on when someone is on stage. He could have been engaging in the audience. He could have even seen you, specifically. But it's just as likely that he did not even notice your phone, or did not realize you were recording video. He could have been using the stage-fright technique of making "eye contact" with the audience by looking at the top of their heads instead of at their faces. He could have been overwhelmed with emotion. Etc. Public speaking is a performance; there is a lot going on in the head of the speaker, and on the stage.

It got emotional, and it was public, and that may not change the legality of things, but, yes, it would have been a good idea to speak to the speaker, or at least the business owner, before you left. Debriefing and checking-in are good practices used by people who perform work in sensitive areas.

Additionally, you arrived late and left early - that is not totally professional.

On what to do: I don't think this is something you necessarily need to handle, and I think a lot of this on your company. It sounds like they did not clearly explain expectations/plans to either you, the business, or the speaker. They need to apologize. They also may need to go over any agreements or contracts that were in place.

On your end, I think you need to ask for clarification about your job, company's expectations, good practices, etc. Additionally, if you are doing PR as a career (or, if a volunteer, are looking into going into PR), you may want to start learning more about relevant professional and ethical practices. A number of people above posted good resources. You might also want to look into the resources published by the PRSA.
posted by sock puppet of mystery! at 12:41 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Given the story as related, you're doing your job, it's your boss/director's issue or the management staff of the venue's problem. Take direction from them, don't apologize as it's not on you to apologize as you're not the decision maker here. You don't have to care about the speaker's contract or anything like that, that's the organizations issue not your own.
posted by Carillon at 1:01 PM on May 16, 2014

I don't think a talk open to the public means that videotaping is allowed.

Usually it means it's legal, and on private property I believe the recourse is generally limited to asking the photographer to leave. A warning at a free, public event would not add to this, but there apparently wasn't one, so that's moot.

It is illegal to photograph unknowing subjects in a public bathroom, for example

There's an expectation of privacy in a bathroom.
posted by rhizome at 1:23 PM on May 16, 2014

I'd say it depends partly on what you're going to do with the footage. I would get the speaker's approval in any case, of course, but I don't think a brief "And this person gave a speech!" [very brief example shot of person speaking to rapt audience] as a promo is the same thing as publishing a video OF the speech. As a speaker, I wouldn't mind the former, the latter I wouldn't be so keen on.

You should have made sure the speaker knew your intention and was cool with it beforehand. Bad feelings avoided.
posted by ctmf at 1:32 PM on May 16, 2014

My point of view, as a person who works in and with the media and PR:

Yes, some people overreacted.

Yes, it was unprofessional of you to show up late and not explain who you were or what you were doing.

Yes, even when it's legal to photograph someone, if they request that you not use that footage (unless it's incredibly newsworthy), you should honor that request.

No, as you own your iPhone no one else can make you delete the footage.

Any organization should understand that you can't force some people to be photographed or filmed in all situations, and they should respect that.
posted by girlmightlive at 2:09 PM on May 16, 2014

Thanks, everyone, for your really helpful, thorough and thoughtful replies. I did email them the next day with a sincere apology and told them I would erase the footage and always ask in advance. They have yet to respond, which has worried my director. He's wondering if they are, in fact, consulting their lawyers.

In any case, thanks to your advice I feel like I handled this as professionally as possible.

It's interesting the differences in responses here--whether it's legal, whether it's to be expected.
I don't know if this matters, but these weren't actually speakers on stage but an informal discussion. It felt sort of like a casual meeting. There were about four people seated in chairs at the front of the room and about 15-20 of us watching. I was the only person standing and I was in the back. I'm not trying to excuse my behavior, just clarifying it.

In any case, I realize I should have handled it differently and will err on the side of caution from now on.
posted by lillian.elmtree at 8:24 AM on May 21, 2014

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