Justine Sacco Will Make a 2014 Comeback

Justine Sacco's Notorious Tweet

Courtesy of Twitter via The Guardian

Shortly before Christmas, PR executive Justine Sacco sent out a tweet to her couple of hundred followers, then jumped on a flight to South Africa.

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

While she spent the next 16 hours offline flying from London to Cape Town, where she planned to see her family and spend a bit of vacation, her tweet sped around the globe. A horrified population jumped on the callous racism of it.

Articles were written, pundits weighed in, her name became a domain that redirected to AIDS charities, her own bosses denounced her actions, the hashtag #hasjustinelandedyet began trending on Twitter, just entering her name into Google brought up her flight information and one guy even interviewed Justine’s dad at the airport as he was waiting for her to arrive.

Sacco, meanwhile, had no idea any of this was happening. That is, until she turned on her phone and walked off the plane. Soon she was out of a job and the poster child for “how to mishandle your social media presence.”

Her career, however, must go on. She’s a relatively young woman who left a large scar on the internet. Will this very public, very despicable action cause Sacco to lose her public relations career? If she takes the right actions, probably not.

Sacco isn’t the first PR “princess” to find herself in a public mess. Remember Lizzie Grubman? Back in 2001 Grubman backed her Mercedes SUV into a group of people outside of a club in the Hamptons, injuring 16 people. Grubman earned herself 26 felony charges, including DWI, and caused almost $100 million in lawsuits as a result of her actions that night. Years later, Grubman retained her career and even got herself an MTV reality show.

PR executives need to be their own PR representatives, at all times. Like our clients, nobody is perfect. Some make inexcusable mistakes, like Sacco. While others perform less scandalous acts that can still cost them their jobs.

Here are some New Year’s resolutions Justine Sacco might want think about for 2014:

Apologize, apologize, apologize – and mean it

Justine Sacco did issue an apology over the weekend of the incident, albeit a weak one. Would she have issued a Twitter apology had her tweet gone unnoticed by the world? Probably not. If Justine Sacco really wants to apologize, she needs to do it with her actions and her words. Perhaps she should spend some of her newly freed time volunteering with a nonprofit to help them in their crusade to abolish AIDS. Maybe she needs sensitivity training. She might consider volunteering at an orphanage in South Africa where children affected by AIDS could use her help.

Since she doesn’t need to remind the public about her huge mistake, she can do this without telling the world. She should do it quietly and shared only with her inner circle, potential clients and employers. She needs to get on the road to public and private recovery and her actions will speak louder than words.

Use social media responsibly

There is nothing wrong with being edgy. I do it all the time, and overall have a very positive return from the technology community I work with every day. If you are not sure you can handle the responsibility of social media, you need to get out of PR. You are making the rest of us look bad.

Some things to consider when using social media:

• The internet is forever – Sacco quickly deleted her Twitter account, but that didn’t make a tweet go away. If you are saying it online, you are saying it for the world to hear and you better be comfortable with that. If you do something offline or even online privately, it can still find its way online. Act in accordance with what you want your public persona to be, for at some point the world may see it.
• Listen after you post – Posting on social media encourages engagement. When you are not online to monitor responses to your post you miss a potential opportunity. Imagine how different Sacco’s situation might be had she monitored her Twitter account for even 30 minutes after posting.
• Use the “Would my boss be upset at this?” rule when posting on your social media properties. If the answer is “maybe” or “yes” then do not post it. Is your online social network really going to lose out because they didn’t see your “awesome” drunk post from last night?

Remember your future employer

Public relations professionals know that some organizations and industries are more conservative than others. If a PR executive wants to work at a large, global company or a more reserved organization, like a school system or a political organization, then taking risky actions, whether they be on or offline, is a definite “no.” If someone wants more control over a risky public persona, they should work for an organization that will not be as affected should negative publicity hit their PR representative.

Worth noting: hateful, racist comments will put you out of a job at some point.

Find empathetic people and work with them

There are people out there who empathize with Sacco. I’m not one of them but certainly they exist. Sacco should consider keeping a list of those people and start to rebuild her tarnished reputation with the people who will give her the opportunity to do so.

Celebrities, athletes, politicians and other people of notoriety bounce back after public debacles. If Justine Sacco executes her 2014 comeback carefully, she will too.