Top 3 PR Lessons From Justine Sacco's Twitter Nightmare

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on December 24, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Justine Sacco, a former PR executive at IAC/InterActiveCorp, sparked a firestorm of controversy after posting a joke on Twitter about AIDS in Africa on Friday.

Dubbed "the tweet heard 'round the world," Sacco sent the following message to her 500 followers before she boarded a flight for Cape Town: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" By the time she arrived in South Africa, the tweet had gone viral. Soon after, she was fired.

Here are three PR lessons to learn from the PR executive's Twitter nightmare:

  1. Put your money where your mouth is. An apology is necessary, but sometimes "sorry" isn't good enough. Much of handling public relations nightmares is crafting an appropriate response. Given the severity of her tweet, IAC recognized the need to sack Sacco for public perception purposes. Doing so sent a strong message to the public -- and to the other employees -- that such behavior is absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated by the company.
  2. Even if innocent, prepare for a viral PR nightmare. As Forbes astutely pointed out, even if Sacco had been the victim of social-media hacking and was actually totally innocent, the damage would still have been done. This is because the e-public is a self-righteous mob. Their knee-jerk deluge of negative press would have vilified Sacco and the company -- whether or not she was actually guilty. The unfortunate lesson here is that the "Twitterfly Effect" is more about entertainment than truth, so prep for social media damage control -- whether or not your employee is actually to blame.
  3. Limit high-level employees' access to social media. We tend to focus on the need to limit lower-level employees' access to social media for liability reasons, but lose sight of upper-management positions like Sacco. Alas, employees' "views are my own" or "RTs aren't endorsements" disclaimers are pretty useless in the face of a PR nightmare. To avoid a devastating public misunderstanding that the company shares in an employee's discriminatory or offensive sentiments, you may want to limit such high-level employees' access to social media.

Above all, encourage your employees to practice what they preach. For goodness' sake, Sacco was a PR executive. As NPR's staff social media guidelines put it, "Conduct yourself online just as you would in any other public circumstances and treat those you encounter online with fairness, honesty and respect, just as you would offline."

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