Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 12.19.28 PMLast Friday I staked my claim to discuss the New York Times Magazine piece, “How One Stupid Tweet Ruined Justine Sacco’s Life,” because the writing drew me in and the application to our field is invaluable. (When you read it, follow it with the related and referenced piece on Gawker entitled, “Justine Sacco is Good at Her Job and How I Came to Peace with Her” and then The Atlantic piece, “A Social-Media Mistake Is No Reason to Be Fired.”) The Times piece is a cautionary “must read” for anyone in our field and anyone who participates in social media. The key takeaways: words matter and social media makes it easy to take down strangers with real consequences.
I’ll provide a bit of background for those of you who weren’t party to her social media take down by other social media users just over a year ago. In December 2013, Justine, the then-senior director of corporate communications at media company IAC, tweeted what she thought was an obviously snarky comment: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” She then boarded a nine-hour flight and arrived in South Africa as the target of an Internet mob that was demanding she be fired, excoriated, and worse.
It’s okay if you gasped when you read her tweet. I did the first time I read that line. It was one in a string of alternately snarky and witty comments she posted as she traveled abroad. I remember having a conversation with Kyle about the tweet as it exploded and we both said we understood it was a horrifying post, but we also understood that at some point, if you truly represent yourself on social media, you will say something you regret.
Everyone says or posts comments that can be taken out of context and misunderstood. While most people understand the difference between the things we say in public, among our friends and the thoughts we keep to ourselves, we don’t always apply the same filters to what we post online. And the ability for anyone to latch onto our ideas, good or bad, makes the consequences of our words very real.
A common trait among many of us in public relations is that we believe we are funny people and surround ourselves with equally witty colleagues. But humor doesn’t always translate. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way many times, and I am sure I will have to learn it many more.
So what should we do? Above all, aim to do no harm. I try to read and re-read social media posts that may be questionable and I am realistic enough to know that even those I don’t think are questionable can be misinterpreted. When I’m not sure if my words convey my thoughts, I delete the line—even the wittiest of comments and the phrases of which I am most proud.
Second, don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues and connections to come to your defense. You connect for many reasons, but the power of a team is sometimes necessary. I had a social media moment three years ago in which I needed help (my words in a tweet were used against me and misconstrued). And Kyle rallied some tweets in my defense to help usher the situation to a quick resolution.
And finally, don’t take it personally. If you have thin skin, you should rethink if social media is a place where you belong. One of the most impressive lessons Justine shared was the ability to accept responsibility, forgive those who participated in her take down and refrain from letting the situation overtake her future.
We all use poor judgment on occasion and we should all atone for our mistakes. But doing so with grace sets survivors apart.