Friday morning, IAC PR executive Justine Sacco had about 300 Twitter followers and was known mostly to her family, friends and colleagues. But after a racially themed tweet and 12 hours of silence as Twitter raged, she became a PR crisis case and an example of a personal reputation meltdown in real time. How did it happen, and can we learn anything from it?
It started with a tweet. Not an ordinary one. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white,” is pretty startling, particularly coming from a senior PR professional at a well known media company. There’s quite a bit to unpack there. First, it seems to make light of the AIDS scourge in Africa. Then it brings in race. Nothing amusing in either case.
Unfortunately for Sacco, Valleywag caught the update and posted a brief but snarky item about it, “A Funny Holiday Joke From IAC’s PR Boss.”
At that, Twitter took notice. To some, it was pure ignorance and racism. Others thought it was an attempt at edgy humor, which was my take. Some speculated about a hack. The tweet was RT’d thousands of times, and Sacco’s Twitter account ballooned to over 6000 followers. Before the close of the business day, IAC had posted an apology for the “outrageous” and “offensive” tweet and implied she would be dismissed as soon as she could be reached. Sacco’s name was scrubbed from the IAC website that very day.
As Twitter waited for a response, it became obvious Sacco was on a flight without Internet access. In the meantime, the community went into overdrive and the story went mainstream, picked up by Business Insider, Huffington Post, and even The New York Times, among others. A faux Twitter account appeared, and Buzzfeed wasted no time in creating a listicle of Sacco’s most dubious tweets. All this in the course of a single day.
In a clever, or, some would say, questionable, bit of newsjacking, Gogo, the inflight Internet service, jumped on the controversy to promote its in-flight wifi. Then Twitter briefly cheered when the domain justinesacco.com was acquired and redirected to an African aid donations site. All were glued to Sacco’s account, waiting for the moment when she would realize the ferocity of the twitstorm, punctuated with the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet. Many actually likened the spectacle to O.J. Simpson’s low-speed Bronco chase of 1994…a pretty tasteless comparison if you ask me.
At some point, Sacco did land and obviously learned about the uproar. Her Twitter account was deleted and she went into hiding. And who could blame her? The story isn’t over, but it does point out some things of import to communicators. Already, in PR-land, Sacco’s meltdown is a lesson in social media’s power and to some, she’s a poster child for self-indulgent, oversharing millennials.
Personal is professional. If your employer is named on your social media account, everything you post can be linked to the company. Any PR professional should know that. And the standard disclaimer that “opinions are my own” is a waste of character space. Does anyone think it would have made a difference in this case?
Edgy humor is hard to pull off. Even if you’re a professional comic, you’re taking a risk with any humor that crosses lines involving issues of race, sexuality, mortality, or violence. Even if it’s satire. Ask Daniel Tosh, Bill Maher, and Gilbert Gottfried, to name just a few. These are guys who do it for a living. Risky humor should be left to professionals.
Response time is critical. The amount of digital rage that built against Sacco because she was unable to delete or apologize for her tweet was astonishing. If we have ever doubted that the media/web/community will fill the void, it’s now a certainty. And the window of opportunity for responding and trying to make things right is breathtakingly small.
Consider a backup plan if out of touch. Some PR pros on Twitter tonight had practical tips. One suggested giving password and login access to work colleagues if unplugged for a day or more. Media trainer Brad Phillips (@MrMediaTraining) advises against setting auto-tweets if you expect to be out of touch for a long while – as we’ve seen when tragic news hits and brands are caught tweeting trivia, or worse. Of course, a better idea is not to post questionable tweets in the first place, regardless of web access.
So, what should Sacco do now? PR pros will debate it, but she should start with a real apology. Not a mealy-mouthed “I’m sorry to those I offended,” but a true expression of contrition. The 12-hour silence couldn’t be helped, but deleting her entire Twitter account and retreating forever isn’t the right move, assuming that she’s not actually a bigot but merely insensitive. Jason Alexander’s heartfelt apology after a “gay” skit he performed on a late-night show is a good model.
The social mob is ruthless, to be sure. But social media can also be a powerful tool for communicating regret and asking for redemption. It may be quixotic, but I hope it can also help turn the schadenfreude the PR community feels about an entertaining, but basically horrible, reputation disaster into something a little bit instructive for all of us.