Lessons from Justine Sacco’s Tweet Heard ‘Round the World

    by Terri Thornton
    January 7, 2014
    Former PR exec Justine Sacco's pre-Christmas tweet set off anger, then contrition. She's since deleted her social media accounts.

    Social media mistakes fascinate me. That’s because, in part, the only people who don’t make them are folks who aren’t on social media.

    Justine Sacco’s notorious tweet-heard-round-the-world seemed to corner the market on the sheer number of mistakes per word.

    "Even otherwise smart, successful people can make some pretty big mistakes. And on social media, those mistakes are not easy to fix."

    In case you missed it, she tweeted, apparently just before her international flight:


    Justine Sacco

    It appeared to insult an entire continent of 50+ countries, people with AIDS, African-Americans, white people, the medical community, the international travel business, people with an actual sense of humor, and more. Then came a huge social media backlash that ranged from funny to frightening, followed by cooler heads chastising the mob-like rush to judgment.

    I believe her apology that she is in anguish over the tweet. Since social media gives us something new to learn every day, let’s count the “lessons learned” and move forward.


    You are what you Tweet

    When I write social media policies for clients, the first rule is that you represent your employer and your community at all times, even with your personal accounts. Any work-related guidance covering your behavior also applies to social media. People will take your posts at face value – in this case, in black and white. Instead of being viewed as “shockingly insensitive” or “highly questionable,” it was reported and shared as “racist,” pure and simple.

    Don’t screw up on a slow news week

    Some wondered why a tweet from someone with only a few hundred followers created such an uproar, and questioned whether her employers’ competitors blew it out of proportion. I can’t address what the competition was thinking, but the number of groups it offended tapped a pretty big audience. And since it was the week before Christmas, a lot of news sites may have had more space to fill than content. Plus, the fact that she’s in PR for a media giant that owns several of the biggest online brands added irony — always a popular peg for a story — and raised the issue of her competence to hold that job during a time when so many people are looking for work. Finally, many PR people who just plain couldn’t believe what they were seeing, and the fact that she had a history of tasteless tweets that apparently went unchallenged, shared it many times on many platforms.

    The numbers game

    Jeff Bercovici at Forbes, who knows Sacco, wrote that she’s not a bad person, she’s just bad at Twitter. A few weeks before, she told him that the more outrageous the tweet, the more response it got.

    In business, the people who set the budgets want numbers to show that the time and resources spent on social media are worth it. Because of the nature of the beast, the only spreadsheet-able facts most people can produce are the number of followers, tweets, retweets, etc. A TV news director in Atlanta recently said she uses Klout scores to decide who to hire.

    But in trying to attract followers or increase influence, don’t get so close to the edge that you fall over it, or numbers may skyrocket for the wrong reasons.

    Context is Everything

    When email was new, people realized that without facial expressions and inflection, quickly written words could be taken the opposite of how they were intended. Now we have so many emoticons that you can sometimes communicate without text at all. And many a Twitter hashtag reinforces intended, sometimes sarcastic, meaning.

    If there were a real joke in there somewhere, it had more shock than value. If a writer pitched it as a gag for Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report, would it be taken as more sarcastic than caustic? Who knows…

    Don’t drink and Tweet, and avoid FUI (Facebooking Under the Influence)

    In the past, Sacco posted, “I can’t be fired for things I say when intoxicated, right?” Let’s say Twitter is the world’s biggest office party, with a studio audience. So yeah, you probably could. There’s no telling whether she’d “had a few” before the infamous tweet, but it would explain a lot.

    A “5” on the Richter scale

    Every minute — and hour — that ticked by without a response while she was unavailable on a transatlantic flight made things worse, the way each full point on the Richter scale for earthquakes increases exponentially. They say dogs age by seven years during every one people year. If Twitter Time were only measured in dog years, we’d be in good shape. In a crisis, time is not on your side.

    Apologize. And mean it!

    A few years ago I met someone who had been publicly embarrassed over a poorly thought-out tweet. He’d never addressed it publicly, but after talking to him for just a few minutes I finally had enough perspective to see where he was coming from.

    I doubt I’ll ever meet Sacco, but she apparently knows now that she was insensitive. She’s lost her job and possibly her career. And that’s probably the biggest lesson — and one to remember going forward. Even otherwise smart, successful people can make some pretty big mistakes. And on social media, those mistakes are not easy to fix.

    Terri Thornton, a former reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly. Follow her on Twitter @TTho

    Tagged: communications crisis Justine Sacco social media twitter

    21 responses to “Lessons from Justine Sacco’s Tweet Heard ‘Round the World”

    1. Ron Geraci says:

      Confession from one of Justine Sacco’s Twitter tormenters —

      View from the Pitchfork Mob

    2. Kat Lyon says:

      There are so many terrible tweets, much more offensive than Justine’s, posted every second. No one cares to note them or publicize them. There is actually a part of me that is JEALOUS that anyone if importance is following her profile. I then thought it over and think her position at a PR company must have come with twitter monitoring. What’s, perhaps “ironic” is the appropriate word, is how much publicity this has gained! Could this be the end if her career in PR? Or is she the next PR star?! A reality show on bravo with her working her PR skills? I sympathize with her for making a bad a tweet. I also support the honest, the funny, the politically incorrect and the risqué. Without them, how boring would social media me?!

    3. Notpc says:

      I don’t like the way you said “white people” haha seriously people get the stick out of yer arses.

    4. David Negrete says:

      OMG, I can be a stone cynic, but this made me churn in my stomach.

    5. Glenn Singley says:

      Thank you for the article. It is a great lesson for my students (I am a high school teacher) to learn now rather than later. So I will be using this in a character lesson – lots to learn from this!

      • Tom McBride says:

        You should be banned from “teaching” children.

        • What the hell Tom? Why? Because he wants to show children what *not* to do with social media?

          I’m starting to think that we need to start teaching kids social media skills at an earlier age, so perhaps we’ll not be inundated with morons like Justine Sacco.

        • Lauren Milligan says:

          But this is exactly what kids should be learning. Do you think that Justine Sacco is going to be the last person to destroy her career on social media? Of course not – we have years and years and years more of this ahead of us. I’m a resume writer and job search coach and trust me, even the best resume is worthless if the candidate is a social media idiot.

          • Tom McBride says:

            She should be teaching kids to think critically of what they read rather than making shallow knee jerk pc judgements. The tweet was obviously meant to be humorous and self deprecating. She doesn’t want to get aids in Africa where it IS rampant. She then implies (“I’m just kidding”) that she can’t get aids because she is white which is self deprecating humor because she is attributing an unreasonable or biased belief which she believes to be true to herself. If that is offensive to anyone that is their problem. To try to avoid offending humorless, non critical thinkers or those who want to exercise power over free speech is degrading and dangerous. No doubt in todays world this will damage her career but the hate and ignorance that cause it are not hers.

            • ParanormalNJ says:

              You seem to be intentionally missing the point of both the article and her response. It is irrelevant whose problem it is if you lose your job over it.

            • Tom McBride says:

              You ar missing my point which is she should not be losing her job.

            • Tom McBride says:

              …and she is losing her job because of out of control pc nonsense.

            • ParanormalNJ says:

              That is a lame argument. Her job is pr, which is understanding ‘PC nonsense’. If you want to make some big statement about the over sensitivity of ‘people today’, this is the wrong case to use as an example. She should have lost her job for being bad at it, if no other reason. No matter how you perform gymnastic to dissect her statements and their meaning ( which, of course is your right but also your interpretation), it resulted in bad pr for her company.

            • ParanormalNJ says:

              You are missing the point if what her job is.

    6. Tom McBride says:

      If you can’t see the innocent humor in that tweet yet you see racism in it the problem is with you and not Sacco.

      • You’re such a fucking troll. Go to hell.

      • Madamegato says:

        Yet you can’t see just how offensive it is that she said what she said? Her “I’m white” aside, going to Africa and hoping you don’t get AIDS… I’m all for humor, all for making light of dark situations, but this woman (from all I’ve seen) appeared to be trolling for a response and she got it. She crossed a line between being funny (without being a comedian known for such things [i.e. Daniel Tosh]), and being crass. If you can’t see how people could take such a message as hateful and cruel, then there are troubles at work in you deeper than a few comment boxes can fix.

    7. Hannah says:

      “The only people who don’t make social media mistakes are folks who are not on social media.” Are you KIDDING me?? Plenty of executives on social media represent themselves and the companies they work for properly. The truth is social media exposes the stupidity that used to only exist in private conversations. Chances are, if you conduct yourself with dignity, respect, compassion and common sense in your personal life, you’ll do so during social network interactions. Those who project one image to the public that is not in accordance with who they truly are, will sooner or later reveal their true colors in the fickle world of social networking. Welcome to reality.

    8. BillClitone says:

      the real lesson is that all the world is full of stupid ignorant people that will gladly hang someone for doing nothing. Just because they think they are being right and good. She did nothing wrong.

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