Remember Justine Sacco? She was a public relations executive with an international media group. In December 2013, while enroute home from New York to her native South Africe, she sent a racist tweet to her several hundred followers. She thought they’d get her sense of humor. When her plane landed 12 hours later, and she went online, she’d been tried and convicted by thousands upon thousands of people on the web, as her tweet got forwarded and forwarded and forwarded. She lost her job, lost her friends, and most of all, her reputation. Justine Sacco was ruined personally and professionally.
Many media people wrote about the downfall of Justine Sacco.
The New York Times Magazine published a compelling feature: “How one Stupid Tweet Ruined Justine Sacco’s Life.”
Patrick Blanchfield analyzed her errors in a Washington Post article, which faulted the public’s quick-to-click mentality on social media.
Jon Ronson’s new book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (available March 31 from Riverhead Books) dissects the Justine Sacco disaster among others who were shamed publicly for indiscretions or thoughtlessness. Social media mob fury is a frightening reality, and it took Sacco down swiftly.
The take-away from the Sacco story is that the only people who don’t put themselves at risk for stupidity on social media are those who don’t use social media.
Once you’ve typed it and clicked it, your statement is public. You’ve no control over its distribution and interpretation. The latter is the rub. If you say something that means something else to the reader, you endanger your reputation. From a business perspective, if you tarnish your reputation, you put your business and your personal stake at risk. In other words, think before you click and send.
Abraham Lincoln had the right idea, according to Maria Konnikova’s New York Times piece, “The Lost Art of the Unsent Angry Letter.” When Lincoln was angry, he’d write a letter and put it aside in a desk drawer for 24 hours. Then, he’d review what he’d written. His anger had generally subsided by then. If he still felt the need to send it, he could edit it without being emotional. As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin said once on NPR, “Never sent, never signed” was good policy.
It’s smart to adapt a Lincoln-type angry letter policy. Type an email draft without addressing it to the recipient. Store it in your draft file for a day, review it, edit it, and then decide if it’s worth sending. A colleague of mine prefers to write angry letters longhand, because it makes her think very carefully about what she is writing.
So, what happens if you click and send? You can delete a Facebook post, although it’s always there somewhere awaiting a forensics expert or a talented snoop to uncover it. You can also delete tweets, but due to the very instantaneous nature of the medium, someone (or perhaps more than one person) may have already retweeted it to their audience before you get the chance to change your mind.
Some emails can be “unsent.” If you use AOL as your email service, you can “unsend” an email if it’s sent to someone else on AOL, providing they haven’t already opened it. If you use GMail, you can unsend an email within ten seconds, IF you know what to do:
So, you sent it. Oops. Apologize immediately and sincerely.
Follow up an email apology with a telephone call. Don’t try to blame your mistake on work overload, bad weather, someone else, or some other factor. Just say it with sincerity and conviction: “I’m really sorry. I made a mistake.”
Those who think before they click, and consider all the possible outcomes of their communication, are those who don’t get in the same situation as Justine Sacco. It’s a tough world out there with people who know how to use the tools to communicate, but who don’t know how to communicate.
Mark G. Auerbach is principal at Mark G. Auerbach Public Relations, a Springfield, MA, based marketing, public relations, development and events consultancy. You can find more information about Mark at Facebook and LinkedIn.