Lessons from a Social Media Disaster

30-year-old Justine Sacco made headlines in December 2013 for insensitive remarks on Twitter during her journey to visit family in South Africa.

  • Sacco tweeted about a fellow passenger on her flight from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, “‘Weird German Dude: You’re in First Class. It’s 2014. Get some deodorant.’—Inner monologue as I inhale BO. Thank God for pharmaceuticals.”
  • And then, during her layover in London, she tweeted, “Chilly—cucumber sandwiches—bad teeth. Back in London!”
  • Subsequently, before boarding her aircraft for the final leg of her trip to Cape Town, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Justine Sacco published a tweet: 'Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm White!'

Sacco Should Have Known Better

Justine Sacco was the senior director of corporate communications at the digital media conglomerate IAC/InterActiveCorp. Her career centered on managing the intent and vocabulary of internal and external communications at a large multinational company.

Sacco’s last tweet sparked an immediate furor. By the time she landed in South Africa, thousands of angry tweets responded to her remarks. Reactions ranged from “Sorry @JustineSacco, your tweet lives on forever” to “How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!” to “I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.”

IAC/InterActiveCorp, her employer, tweeted, “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.” By the time she landed in South Africa, IAC had fired Sacco and released a statement saying:

The offensive comment does not reflect the views and values of IAC. We take this issue very seriously, and we have parted ways with the employee in question.

There is no excuse for the hateful statements that have been made and we condemn them unequivocally. We hope, however, that time and action, and the forgiving human spirit, will not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core.

That One Stupid Tweet Blew up Justine Sacco’s Career

Lessons from Justine Sacco's Social Media Disaster Justine Sacco later apologized for her insensitivity and stated, “Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet. … For being insensitive to this crisis … and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed. … This is my father’s country, and I was born here. I cherish my ties to South Africa and my frequent visits, but I am in anguish knowing that my remarks have caused pain to so many people here; my family, friends and fellow South Africans. I am very sorry for the pain I caused.”

Sacco is now a communications manager for a small startup in New York. Even if she realized social media’s power in the most awful way possible and learned her lesson the hard way, the chances of her ever getting another significant job in corporate communications or public relations are remote. Presumably, it will take a long time for her to rebuild her career.

Alas, Humor is a Difficult Thing

Sacco probably isn’t racist or one who doesn’t sympathize with people with AIDS. Her tweet was simply a bad tweet.

Sacco, who deleted her Twitter account right away, had a history of tweeting sarcastic remarks and offensive little jokes. “I was so naive,” she later admitted to a Gawker columnist, claiming she never expected that her tweet would be misunderstood and misconstrued in such a way. She insisted her message was an attempt to mimic what a truly racist or ignorant person would say.

The Pitfalls of Social Media

Three Lessons from Justine Sacco’s Tweet: The Pitfalls of Social Media

  • Companies, publish social media guidelines for employees: Social media users easily blur the lines between their personal and professional personalities by openly declaring their affiliations on LinkedIn, Twitter, and other sites. Consequently, when they use social media in their professional or personal capacities, they can seriously harm their employer’s reputation. Whereas policing technology use or monitoring all published content is impractical, companies must educate employees about the pitfalls of social media. For example, the U.S. Air Force has a thorough handbook to help its employees engage online (and offline) communities in a positive way.
  • Folks, be mindful of your digital footprint; watch what you write. Social media has not only made us more accessible to one another, but also more accountable. Many prospective employers search social networking websites and the internet for more information on job candidates. Your online presence can be an asset or a liability. Any remark you post in the public domain can be distorted or misinterpreted. Refrain from venting complaints, writing crude posts, portraying organizations and individuals in negative light, bad-mouthing, and posting opinions on sensitive topics. Maintain a professional tone and post insightful content that appeals to prospective employers.
  • Be cautious with humor and sarcasm. “Humor is inherently ambiguous. That’s how it works. You’re saying more than one thing, and it’s never clear exactly what the message is,” says Prof. Rod Martin, who has researched the nature of humor at the University of Western Ontario. It’s amazing how quickly a well-intentioned remark or an offhand comment, when taken the wrong way, can completely derail communication. Humor and sarcasm are complicated. No matter how funny you think you are, you’ll stand the risk that people won’t “get it.” This is especially true in written form, which lacks the helpful subtext of tone and facial movement. It can be very difficult to foresee how others may receive humor or sarcasm: as a clever comment, show of callousness, or as passive-aggression. Exercise caution when it is necessary to use humor; don’t let it get out of control.

Idea for Impact: Social media mistakes may have serious consequences. Once made, those mistakes are not easy to fix. Be mindful of what you share on social media.

Postscript: While I understand the power of social media as an efficient medium for how our world currently interacts, I must admit I don’t understand why intrusive micro-blogging on Facebook (and worse, Twitter) is interesting. Personally, I find social media a gross distraction and invasion of privacy. This is besides the fact that, frankly, nobody cares where I am or what I am doing on an hour-by-hour basis. I deliberately choose to reduce my technological footprint and connect with people in more thoughtful and meaningful ways.

Comments

  1. FOLEY CAROLINE says

    A fantastic insight into what is a complicated and ever present part of everyday life. I will share this with my almost teenage daughter as food for thought about her own increasing social media footprint. I hope it might help her to avoid the pitfalls

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