What PR pros owe Justine Sacco

The New York Times Magazine revisited the infamous tweet that lost the corporate comms director her job and made her a permanent footnote in social media history. What courtesies do pros owe colleagues who mess up?

The most-viewed article on The New York Times website over the weekend was about Justine Sacco, the PR executive whose infamous tweet from December 2013 sent her life—and her career—into turmoil.

The article, titled “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life,” paints a sympathetic portrait of Sacco (and others) who have endured the painful wrath of online mobs.

As a reminder, the tweet above, sent to Sacco’s 170 Twitter followers prior to boarding an 11-hour flight without Wi-Fi, quickly became Twitter’s top trending topic. By the time she landed, she had become a source of outrage for some—but short-term amusement for many others.

Sacco says her tweet wasn’t meant to be taken literally: “Living in America puts us in a bit of a bubble when it comes to what is going on in the third world. I was making fun of that bubble.” Regardless of her intent (she had sent other insensitive tweets the same night), the Twitter mob had selected its target. And, as The New York Times contributor Jon Ronson writes, being the target of online rage comes at a steep cost:

For the past two years, I’ve been interviewing individuals like Justine Sacco: everyday people pilloried brutally, most often for posting some poorly considered joke on social media. Whenever possible, I have met them in person, to truly grasp the emotional toll at the other end of our screens. The people I met were mostly unemployed, fired for their transgressions, and they seemed broken somehow — deeply confused and traumatized. ​

A problem of proportionality

The issue, it seems to me, is one of proportionality. In a bygone era, similar comments overheard in an office hallway might have prompted a friendly boss to throw an arm around her shoulder and say, “Hey, I need you to cut that out.” But those same comments made publicly today can lead to a fierce and life-altering blowback that far exceeds the original grievance.

There’s value in society enforcing publicly accepted norms by holding people who violate them to account. But social media makes it too easy to turn an act deserving of a mild rebuke into a moment that turns the offender into an unemployed moral reprobate. Perhaps it’s reasonable to ask who among us could endure such scrutiny and make it out unscathed?

Was Justine Sacco an appropriate target?

My preference is to analyze and critique bigger targets, people who put themselves into positions of responsibility by choice. But occasionally, the unknown PR professional, random university student, or obscure business manager comes along and says or does something stupid. And I occasionally decide to write about that person.

The question, then, becomes whether I’m simply joining the large chorus of attack or writing something intended to be at least somewhat productive. As readers of this blog know, I succeed at that only some of the time.

Still, I aim to remain mindful of this brilliant monologue from comedian Craig Ferguson, who delivered these thoughts about choosing the “right” targets while Britney Spears was enduring her much-publicized breakdown.

To see if I met the “Craig Ferguson Test,” I went back and looked at my Twitter timeline from the period when the Justine Sacco story broke. I was relieved to see that despite sending a few snarky tweets, I lived up to my standards for myself at least some of the time.



What do we owe the Justine Saccos of the world?

If the first rule of media training is this:

“Don’t say anything you wouldn’t want published on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper.”

Then perhaps the first rule of blogging and interacting on social media should be this:

“Don’t write anything about another person that you wouldn’t feel comfortable defending if you went to dinner with them tonight.”

I’d maintain that it’s OK to write, tweet, and post about Justine Sacco, or any of the other formerly anonymous people who committed dumb thoughts to paper (or Twitter). It’s OK to ask that they be held to some sort of account for their actions.

But I’d argue that we have also have an obligation to talk about these people with some measure of compassion. Perhaps we should allow the person to defend themselves before assuming the worst about them. And maybe we should pause to examine whether our online bloodlust is coming from a place of genuine outrage or cheap titillation. For if we don’t, we diminish ourselves.

What do you think? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

Brad Phillips is author of “The Media Training Bible: 101 Things You Absolutely, Positively Need to Know Before Your Next Interview.” He is also the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm, and blogs at Mr. Media Training, where a version of this article originally appeared.

Topics: PR

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