The power of Twitter never ceases to surprise. For those who forget to think before they tweet the consequences can be truly dramatic. Recently a tweet of three little words; “Image from #Rochester” accompanying a picture of St Georges flags and a white van in front of a low-cost house was enough to have Emily Thornberry MP branded a snob and make her lose her place on Labours front bench.
Similarly, one year ago, Justine Sacco, formerly the global head of communications for the digital media conglomerate IAC, was sacked following her hapless tweet “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m White!”
For others the risk of negative publicity generated by a tweet is apparently more appealing than no publicity at all. How else can Myleene Klass’s recent snarky tweets about two mothers’ emails asking for cash donations for their daughter’s birthday presents that occurred, by her later admission, over a year ago, be explained? A ticking off from the headmistress of her daughter’s school, confrontations with angry mothers at the school gate and likely embarrassment for her daughter seems to be a price she was prepared to pay for getting herself oceans of media coverage.
For most though, a negative backlash from a hasty, ill-considered tweet is not something that we expect or prepare for. Nevertheless, in terms of public relations, how to protect the reputation of someone who has made such a tweet is an important challenge.
Ironically, the answer to this challenge may come from the very person who ‘broke’ the story about Justine Sacco’s tweet. At the time of Sacco’s tweet Sam Biddle was editing Valleywag, Gawker’s tech-industry blog. In his Gawker article (http://gawker.com/justine-sacco-is-good-at-her-job-and-how-i-came-to-pea-1653022326) Biddle states that as soon as he saw the tweet, he posted it. Without adding any real editorial his post set off a 48-hour ‘paroxysm of fury, an eruption of internet vindictiveness’. Inevitably Sacco’s career with IAC ended.
With almost poetic justice, a year later Biddle himself posted a tweet ‘Bring Back Bullying’ which he considered to be ‘a joke’ and ‘ironic’ but the backlash he received made him realise that the world of Twitter is a difficult place for such humour. Hundreds of people demanded he (too) should be sacked. In determining how to respond and rescue his reputation he turned to the woman whose early career he had helped to ruin. The advice he received surprised him but he found it to be effective. It was “shut up”.
Sacco had made one big genuine and heartfelt apology and then stopped fuelling the fire of debate about her mis-tweet. She tweeted nothing further and refused to engage. The fire burnt out and she picked up her career as the communications boss for a small New York startup.
So the very best advice about tweeting probably comes from the headmistress of Myleene’s daughter’s school when she sent out a newsletter to the parents saying “As my granny would have said, if you can’t tweet anything nice, don’t tweet anything at all.” (http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/myleene-klass-told-if-you-cant-tweet-anything-nice-dont-tweet-anything-at-all-by-head-at-daughters-school-10033036.html)
However, if you do become a twitter twit and make a 120 character statement which hits the headlines for all the wrong reasons then Sacco’s personal advice, based on her very painful experience is to know when to stop and just ‘shut up’.