What PR PROs Can Learn From Justine Sacco

What PR PROs Can Learn From Justine Sacco.

What PR PROs Can Learn From Justine Sacco

Image of What PR PROs Can Learn From Justine SaccoBy Dorothy Crenshaw, CEO and Creative Director, Crenshaw Communications

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 history and an example of a personal reputation meltdown in real time. How did it happen, and can we learn anything from it?

As everyone knows, 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 in the short tweet. It’s doubly offensive: first, it makes light of the AIDS scourge in Africa. Then it brings in race. Nothing amusing or clever 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 many, it was pure ignorance and racism. Others thought it was an attempt at edgy humor. 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 on the East Coast, 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 then scrubbed from the IAC website.

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, complete with Megyn Kelly jokes. Buzzfeed wasted no time in creating a listicle of Sacco’s most dubious tweets.

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 her Twitter account was deleted. The story may not be 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 (if that’s what it was) is hard to pull off. Even if you’re a professional comic, you’re taking a risk with any humor that crosses lines involving serious issues of race, sexuality, mortality, or violence.  Ask Daniel Tosh,  Bill Maher, and Gilbert Gottfried, to name just a few. These are guys who do it for a living.

Response time is critical. The amount of internet rage that built against Sacco because she was (presumably) unable to delete or apologize for her tweet was astonishing. If we have ever doubted that the media/web/community will fill the void of a non-response, 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 stupid tweets in the first place, regardless of internet access.

So, what should Sacco do now? PR pros will debate it for some time to come, but once she realizes what’s hit her, 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 isn’t the right move, assuming that she’s not actually a bigot. If she is, then this is a wake-up call.

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.

About the Author: Dorothy Crenshaw has provided the inspiration and initiative behind a range of high-profile and award-winning campaigns for clients, including those in CE and digital technology, retail, consumer products, and health promotion. Before opening her namesake agency, Dorothy was President of Stanton Crenshaw Communications, which she helped build into a premier mid-sized New York PR agency over 13 years. Earlier she was Executive Vice President and Managing Director of Worldwide Consumer Marketing at the PR unit of Grey Advertising. Prior to Grey, she was with Edelman Worldwide as Senior Vice President. An industry influencer, Dorothy speaks frequently on brand-building, marketing to women, and workplace topics. She serves on the board of New York Women in Communications, Inc. and Cancer Care and was named one of the industry’s 100 Most Powerful Women by PR Week.