Comedy is difficult… especially on social media

Think before you tweet.

By now, you’ve read about “The Tweet Heard Round the World,” by public relations executive Justine Sacco. It’s pretty short and sweet.

Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!

The outrage related to this is well-placed. It’s racist, classist, really inappropriate, and just plain stupid.

However, there is a more business-related reason that Sacco was fired, and it provides a lesson to all companies.

Sacco’s tweet wasn’t any more racist than thousands of brutal, uninformed tweets over the years. How many times does the sports blog Deadspin post some kind of “hey, look how racist the Internet is,” post when folks go all redneck on a Latino or an Asian athlete (hint: more than 10 times this year).

The real problem with Sacco’s tweet is that she should know better, and if one of your PR executives is dumb enough to miss the offensiveness of their tweet, then you don’t want them running your PR.

There is a lesson in this for companies and for employees who speak on behalf of their firms.

First, companies need to be prepared to deal with backlash from things their employees say, and they need to have a policy in place that guides their employees through the social media world. This isn’t as easy as it seems, since legal precedent is on the side of employees and their First Amendment rights. So your company needs to teach employees how to use social media, not just threaten them with termination.

The Kansas Board of Regents has taken the latter tack (after a PR nightmare following the Newtown shootings and a tweet from a professor), and their policy is going to blow up in their face. The fact is, social media is protected by the First Amendment. The KU professor tweeted to incite violence. That’s not the same as saying, “hey, my boss sucks.” The Board of Regents has now declared them the same. Bad policy.

Teach your employees how to use social media. If you do, they will become your best free ambassadors. At my last firm, there was no policy. In fact, the policy was essentially, “Don’t be on social media,” but that was neither enforced nor distributed. In a regulated industry like financial services, there needs to be guidance so employees don’t unwittingly put the firm at risk of regulatory censure.

I worked for 15 months to build a guidance document for regular employees. All we wanted to do was to tell folks how to handle their relationship with the company on social media. It’s easy. Not saying “no” to employees, but rather giving them the tools so they can feel as if they are safe and helping the firm. It went nowhere, mostly because of fear and stagnation.

The irony was that, at the same time, the Compliance department would watch employees on social media and point out when they did something that they perceived to hurt the company. I was one of those employees, and this is where the lesson for all us workers comes in.

On the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, one of my Twitter followers tweeted something about the bombing that was, essentially, “f*** those guys.” In the heat of the moment, I retweeted it and included a disclaimer that I normally don’t allow cursing in my tweets, but this was a unique situation.

Two months later, during a discussion about the firm’s policies for advisors and our planned pilot program, my tweet was trotted out with the comment – from an upper executive – “Are we sure we want someone running our social media program who would tweet THIS?”

The point was made. And the lesson was clear. It’s a lesson Sacco now knows. Luckily, this exchange was in the heat of the moment, and all was forgotten/forgiven within a day. Sacco didn’t have time to learn this lesson. To paraphrase Depeche Mode,

Everything counts, even in small amounts.

No matter how many “these opinions are my own” disclaimers you put up on your Twitter feed, each tweet matters. Each post matters. Each like and comment matters. If you’re an employee, and people know where you work, you represent your company. Do it well. Be professional. Be smart. Have fun, but be smart.

Justine Sacco made a mistake that may irreparably injure her career. She thought she was just trying to be funny. Comedy is difficult on social media, and if your joke bombs, your career – and the company where you work – might be collateral damage.

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