It all started with a tweet.
Justine Sacco, communications director for IAC (former, now) , conglomerate in charge of such sites as Match.com and Dictionary.com sent out the following tweet prior to boarding a several-hour long flight to Cape Town, South Africa:
Let that sink in for a moment if you haven’t already read or heard about this. It’s a real doozy of a WTF moment.
Sunk in yet? Rooted in place? OK…
What we have here is a real lesson in several areas. Now that the dust has somewhat settled, let’s break it down in a few of those areas.
Lesson the first: Once again we see what happens when you, for one moment, underestimate the power of social media
Twice in the last week we have seen people take to social media to vent their frustrations for perceived slights.
The first came to us in the form of the Facebook storm that pitted fans of Duck Dynasty‘s patriarch, Phil Robertson against, well, everyone else. The cultural divide delved deeper than fans of the show and non-fans. In the wake of the digital battle of Gay-tysburg where religious zealots who decry Robertson was robbed of first amendment rights and the lefties who decried Robertson overstepped his bounds when he spoke in direct contradiction of the more accepting philosophies of his employer, A&E (particularly those on homosexuality which always seems to be the most inflammatory of subjects), the online battlefield was rife with equal parts savior, vitriol and inspirational messages of acceptance. It’s a wonder that any sense could be made of Robertson’s situation with the back and forth of a figurative flaming tennis ball on the court, but in the end, I believe it was John Stewart (always the moral compass I find myself agreeing with more often than not) who summed it up best:
“I think the guy said a zinger…But I also have an inclination to support a world where saying ignorant shit on television doesn’t get you kicked off that medium.”
The TL;DR is that A&E knew what they signed up for with Robertson and his tribe of Cabela’s toting NRA poster children and when one spoke out of line, they should have opened a dialogue instead of unceremoniously kicking him to the curb Paula Deen-style (remember THAT mess?).
But there have been some GEMS on both sides of the argument: for and against Robertson, and moreover, his supporters…I prefer reading the more thought-out arguments on both sides because it’s more interesting when intellectuals debate. Some people like UFC fighters in a cage, I prefer smarties with the written word.
And just when people were starting to entertain the idea of moving on from Robertson’s ejection from Duck Dynasty, Friday night happened. And from what I presume to be the result of checking every girl-gone-wild bucket list item in that Katy Perry song, Justine Sacco gave the gift of her misunderstood humor to the Twitterverse.
And when at first I was willing to write off Saccogate as the transgressions of a careless Twitter account holder who was the victim of cybercrime and a hacked account, I soon found myself writing her off as someone who simply tried to be funny in a public forum and it failed when both the context and the humor was misunderstood and misperceived.
Because, as much as we’d like (and some did) to call her an ignorant girl (again, some saying as much using much meaner words), the realist and humanist in me would like to think she was simply someone who tried to tell a joke and failed miserably.
When a comedian tells a bad joke, people tend to be silent, and if it’s a REALLY bad joke, people will boo, and if it’s downright offensive they’ll throw things.
The problem people have with Sacco’s “joke” is that even if people could wrap their minds around it actually being a joke, they begin to question or debate the source from where such a joke would originate. So ensues an often reignited battle of both class and race.
Wherein the previous week we saw the progressives defending the homosexual community against Phil Robertson and his army of followers (and yes, I strategically use the word “army”), with Sacco’s tweet we saw the the mob transform. Such transformation is both amazing and frightening as a flock of birds flying so spectacularly in formation changing direction in unison as the winds change. But never once do so many birds maintain the same formation. They change direction and what was once a V is now an oval. The mentality of the Twitterati is much and the same.
The point is people EVISCERATED Sacco before her plane even landed (I think the trending topic on Twitter puts the proof in the pudding, #hasjustinelandedyet) without so much as an explanation. What if she indeed had been hacked? Would that have changed the expedient manner in which the digital mob had made up its mind?
And once it was confirmed to be legit, did we stop to ask her why? One man did, well, sort of.
Lesson the second: The masses of social media users will often make up their mind without proof or evidence based on their experiences, background, associations, and upbringings.
In the past, when people judged a person based on their behavior, demeanor, style of clothing, or communication skills (or lack of any of the above) it was often easy to associate, cast off, or ignore people completely based on those judgements. The high school lunchroom was the first place we often saw this principle in motion. Segregation at its finest based on a number of factors. But such segregation was on a small scale. It was simply people around us. Can you imagine what kids have to go through these days. Their lunchroom no longer has 200-300 of their classmates. Their lunchroom now has 20-30 million people their own age and then some making the same judgements, jokes and agreements about daily life occurrences. And come on, you KNOW that our minds are totally screwed up as teenagers. Everything is SUCH A BIG DEAL. But we get over it. Like the campaign of the same name, it gets better. Why? Because we move on. Well most of us. We get away from those people or they get away from us.
With social media, it’s different. There’s no getting away from anyone or anything might that we try because everything is connected. Unless we move to some remote island and left behind every single piece of technology, we can’t escape the world. I mean, even on the island are you REALLY getting away? Google Maps satellite will still be able to display your coconut gathering and Tiki hut building to the world, enabling people to “like” or “share” what you’re doing.
The depressing sentiment is that because of technology, we are no longer able to drift away from the harsh politics of high school. We are no longer able to, well, grow up or face the music of our choices because if we say or do anything in the world, now, chances are there’s an association of people with a website, Twitterfeed and Facebook business page that can muster up support for or against those choices. We saw it just last week with the Phil Robertson debacle.
Lesson No. 3: Because we’re all connected, and because someone somewhere will be offended by what we say and do, we have to recognize that our personal life is different than our online one.
Sacco made a joke. Plain and simple. She didn’t think anyone would take it the wrong way, but they did. Did I? No, I didn’t. I got it. But that’s also because being a cynical and sarcastic person (much as I have been even when I was a kid and my favorite teacher in high school accused me as such — she wasn’t wrong and I loved her more for her honesty) I recognized Sacco’s effort. So what was I upset about?
Her lack of understanding.
I’m still new to the world of Public Relations, even in my 33 years the last ten of which have been in the Navy. Heck, I’m applying for jobs as we speak and most of them are junior role PR and Social Media positions. I have a lot to learn about the PR world. But one doesn’t have to be a senior person with years upon years of experience to see that what Sacco tweeted was stupid. But, therein lies the irony.
SACCO WAS A LEADER IN THE PR WORLD.
I mentioned this on PR Daily in their comments section, my feelings about the matter.
In the Navy, well, military in general, we leave no one behind. As teammates, shipmates, etc., we work to accomplish the mission AS A TEAM. As such, we are as it goes without saying, only as strong as our weakest link. We take each other’s mistakes and make them our own. We learn from those mistakes and when a team member makes one, we question ourselves as teammates and leaders to find where we failed that person.
Sacco wasn’t the only person who failed in her situation. We all did as PR professionals. It’s easy to poke a stick at her, make her the butt of this year’s holiday party jokes, and even make her a case study for future PR professionals in school, but the true challenge will be to accept her and teach her. One would hope that she attained the position as a DIRECTOR of communications at a large conglomerate because she’s indeed intelligent with the principles of investor and public relations as well as corporate and marketing communications. But who would have thought the younger cats like myself would have a few things to teach veterans like her about life in the social media age, or as my good friend and sociology doctorate holder Danny would remind me, in a social surveillance society.
Sacco learned the hard way what it’s like to live your life online. I’ve never met her, but I imagine her to be a spunky person. I like spunky. I have a few of those people in my life now. And each and every one of them are loving, caring and most importantly, ACCEPTING people. And a few of them have a sense of humor that can easily be misunderstood.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about free speech vs. consequence free speech. The truth is, we live in a great country where people can say whatever they want. They can voice their opinion, publish it, share it, LIVE it. But there is a difference between speaking your mind and saying shit that hurts people. One has to stop and think not of the legality of the speech, but of the moral purpose. Just because you CAN say something doesn’t always mean that you should. And the brilliant people in this world are those who can recognize the difference, even when in the moments they choose to speak they say something with which we do not agree. Phil Robertson might believe and speak to the fact that his faith dictates that I as a gay man will go to hell. And Justine may very well be a bloody awful joke teller. But there are times and places for such things and their dismissals from their jobs are the consequence of saying such things when they are suppose to represent the principles of their employers who pay them to either BE in the public eye or communicate with it. As this is their failure, so too, is it ours. It’s ours because we have allowed the social media realm to become an extension of the high school lunchroom.
There are a few guidelines I suppose need to be reiterated in order to trek through the lunchroom and survive without feeling like you’re in a never-ending power struggle that dominates a real high school lunchroom:
- Don’t VENT on social media when you’re pissed. Especially if what you’re venting about is work or family situations wherein real people are involved and could misunderstand what you’re saying in anger or be hurt by it. If you feel compelled to write it and share it with the world, then write it. But sleep on it or cool off before hitting the send button. And if you DO hit that send button, be PREPARED to defend it should people be equally compelled to confront you about it. Again I reiterate the difference between speaking freely and consequence-free speech where you can certainly do the former but the latter nearly does not exist.
- If you are going to call someone or a company out, do it politely and express your concern. Nowadays most people and companies are watching social media for customer service opportunities. Often calling them out on Twitter means you’ll receive much better and quicker attention which makes both sides happy (the company gets to show other people how they’re willing to help you and you get to benefit from that eagerness=win/win).
- If you’re going to joke on social media, be sure people know the context, or be prepared to explain it. Don’t joke (especially something you KNOW could be seen as offensive without context) and leave it at that and then board a 10-20-hour flight to another part of the world.
- If you’re a company or brand and your tweet/post, though honest in its intentions, goes wrong or is misunderstood, don’t remove it. It’s too late. Screencaps and the Meme-ers will keep it alive forever (and knowing Buzzfeed they’ll make a post rife with GIFs containing the most AWESOME reactions to it) and removing it makes you look desperate to please. Don’t look desperate. Own it. If it’s wrong or messed up, simply apologize and move on. People will too. TRUST ME.
- And along those same lines, if you make a tweet/post that’s awesome (for example) and a handful of people freak out or are offended by it. Apologize to THEM (probably individually and genuinely). Not to the world. And don’t remove the tweet/post. It makes you look weak. For the most part, people love a brand that stands by what it says and doesn’t change the message because a handful of people are offended. I know it’s hard to understand this, but the customer is not always right, and you really cannot please everyone.
These are the few BASIC social media PR principles. There are a ton of resources out there that afford people an opportunity to understand our world as we live it now online. But remember that often things get lost in translation from mind and voice to text online. If people cannot see your facial expressions or hear the tone and inflection in your voice to know you’re being (or trying to be) funny or sarcastic, chances are they won’t.
The final truth I end this post with is that I think social media is forcing us to be better people. It’s making us be smarter about what we say because as we saw with Phil and Justine, the consequences of what happens when expression becomes oblivious, even for just one moment, to the fact that such expression is online for the WORLD to see. Does that mean it’s not allowing or deterring us to be who we really are? In some ways yes, and in others, no. Yes in that now we are accountable to what we say; meaning, if it’s perceived as hateful or stupid, people will happily remind us as much. But no because we are now able to express ourselves on a global scale now, not just in our immediate environment. This allows for us to seek out and find those who share our ideals.
I just wish such expression was free from the judgmental antics of the high school lunchroom. I mean REALLY? Does that shit have to follow us long after we graduate?
Ah well…at least I ate lunch in Rm. 206 at Burges High. It was the journalism room. It wasn’t perfect (we had a caste system of editors and non-editors), but at least we got along. God I miss those guys.