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Becoming the story: PR people who get bad PR

We often see PR firms having to manage the PR disasters of their less savvy clients. It is arresting, then, when a PR adviser gets something very wrong – and when it happens it tends to attract a lot of attention.  Shadenfreude isn’t all that we should respond with when this happens. Instead we should look and learn.

And so to Justine Sacco, one PR ‘guru’ who has clearly not taken her own industry’s advice and has found herself in some pretty difficult positions recently as a result of words that she has put out into the ether. Her name has popped up again and not in a way that you’d want recognition.  In the first example in just 140 characters on Twitter, Sacco managed to cross boundaries of compassion and race.

Epidemiology  Should we be judged by our lowest moment? It is a moot point. But here was Sacco’s ‘moment’.  Her first noticeable mistake was assuming that any tweets she posted for the amusement of her 170 followers would stay between them.  She found out just what it means to go viral when she posted a seriously racist tweet in the run up to a trip to Africa.  The tweet read: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’  You’re probably cringing just reading that – even the youngest or most inexperienced Twitter user could see the problems with posting that onto a global social network.  Well, of course, her tweet was retweeted and commented upon, most particularly by tech blogger Sam Biddle who had 15,000 followers. At the time, Sacco was on her flight to Africa and it was only when she got off the plane that she would have seen the barrage of responses to her ill-advised tweet.

Lost forever Many of those responses were calls for her to lose her job, to which her employer rather ominously replied “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an int flight.”  Although a friend deleted her account for her, it didn’t stop the furore and Justine was soon sacked by her employer and then repeatedly trolled online for months afterwards. Someone even collated all her most ill advised tweets and re-posted them for all to see.

Life sticks Justine has since apologised for what she said, stating “Unfortunately, I am not a character on ‘South Park’ or a comedian, so I had no business commenting on the epidemic in such a politically incorrect manner on a public platform.”  It took months for the heat on her to die down and the spotlight to move to another person. So, it was rather a surprise to see her name once again all over Twitter recently as the PR person for FanDuel, one of two companies reportedly involved in an insider-trading scandal affecting fantasy sports business (an industry that is reportedly worth $2.6 billion in America).  The insider trading scandals has only been part of the story though as Sacco herself has been targeted by tweets such as “First the racist tweet, now the mishandling of the #DFS scandal as @FanDuel’s PR spokeswoman. Maybe Justine Sacco should get out of PR biz.”

#awkward So, what are the lessons here?  Well there is the obvious one: no matter who you are social media doesn’t forgive and it definitely doesn’t forget – even if you try to delete everything. If you wouldn’t be happy to shout your tweet or status update from the rooftops then don’t say it at all. Also – recognise who you are, and what you have to lose. The social media space can seem a bit Wild West – people can be attacked from behind screens of anonymity or obscurity in episodes where the ‘victim’ seems to have no comeback.  Sacco was not some troll sat behind a wall of anonymity. Her reputation was her value, and something she could lose by such means. Higher standards are set for people like her – or else, why would a client engage a PR?

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