Tuesday, December 24, 2013

How a PR Executive Put Her Foot in Her Mouth and Got Booted Thanks To Her Racist Tweet

Justine Sacco worked as the communications director at IAC/InterActiveCorp. (NASDAQ:IACI).

IAC runs popular websites such as www.ask.com, www.about.com, www.match.com, www.dictionary.com, investopedia.com, www.dictionary.com, www.vimeo.com and the Tinder app.

A graduate from Tulane University with a BA in Philosophy, she started her career in 2005 at Dan Klores Communications, followed by working for about a year at The Morris + King Company before moving on to World Wrestling Entertainment. Since 2011, she was working for IAC as a (Senior) Director Corporate Communications in NYC.

Her career ended with one fatal tweet. On her way to South Africa, she tweeted:

"Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"

The tweet created a firestorm. InterActive Corp decided to fire Ms. Sacco, stating:
"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."

The now jobless Sacco went on record saying that she was "ashamed" and released the following apology:

"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. There is an AIDS crisis taking place in this country, that we read about in America, but do not live with or face on a continuous basis. Unfortunately, it is terribly easy to be cavalier about an epidemic that one has never witnessed firsthand. For being insensitive to this crisis -- which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly -- 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."

Personally, I am amazed that a 30-year-old PR professional with her track record could be that stupid in her use of social media.

What are the lessons we can learn?

Everything is on the record

In social media, there is no separation between personal and professional posts – and everything is on the record. If your grandmother would frown upon the content of your post or your worst enemy could use it against you – don’t post!

Be careful with humor

Social media are global, so any joke or "funny" remark you make can be hold against you by minorities or people from different backgrounds, cultures or countries. Be respectful, and in case of doubt, cut the concept out (delete, erase, and empty trash)

React quickly and sincerely

Once you post, it’s a fait accompli. The best thing to do is to apologize – but be sincere! The long and babbling apology of Sacco just does not cut it.

Remember – time is against you, so have to react quickly. Just look at the Duck Dynasty controversy where it took Phil Robertson too long to react.

PR professionals need to be nonstop online

When you work in PR, you need to be online 24/7. Knowledge is indeed power! Part of Sacco’s’ problem was that she was flying (and therefore incommunicado) when all hell broke loose. When unavailable, there are several steps you can take to prevent disaster, such as having a colleague read and tweet on your behalf.

Take care of a proper follow up

Apart from apologizing, Sacco should also follow up with action. In her case, volunteering is a AIDS hospice would be perfect. Assuming that she wants to work in PR ever again, she should write articles (“what I learned from my appropriate tweet” or “The tweet that launched a thousands backlashes”). She also needs to beef up her LinkedIn profile – only one official recommendation is pathetic!

Be aware that you are tainted – and deal with it

Once you’ve reached the level of notoriety of Justine Sacco, you’re tainted. Any web search on “Justine Sacco” does not yield her LinkedIn profile, but coverage of her controversial tweet. Unless she counterbalances it with articles and posts to explain the crisis and how to follow up, she will be toast. Making a public donation or volunteering are excellent ways as well to do damage control.

Corporations need to monitor their employees

It might smell like 1984, but corporations need to monitor what their employees post on Twitter and Facebook as well as (to a lesser extent) on LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram.

A post can harm the brand of a company and even have repercussions if that company is a public one listed on the NYSE or NASDAQ.

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