Justine Sacco and IAC: How Not to do Social Media

I usually blog on knowledge management and business, and for the last year mostly on the intersection with healthcare. This post is about how companies keep getting social media wrong and how huge opportunities are missed out of fear and cowardice. I was drawn into the Justine Sacco scoldgasm by a tweet by Dr. Ben Goldacre, world renowned for his fight against bad pharma and the need for transparency in clinical trials. I got to thinking about the Justine Sacco situation after seeing her employer’s response and a tweet by another doctor. The imbroglio of Justine’s ill-considered tweet garnered world attention, and drew comments from people as far apart as Dr. Richard Horton, editor of the premiere medical journal, The Lancet, and newspapers in Johannesburg. Here are the pertinent facts from my perspective:

  1. Justine hit send on a really bad tweet – who knows why.
  2. She was incommunicado for the next 12 hours enroute to Cape Town
  3. Twitter exploded
  4. Her followers went from 400 to 8,000
  5. The world’s attention was focused on her and her employer

What IAC and Justine did next was the second worst thing possible. With world attention on them, IAC semaphored their intentions – (a) to distance themselves from the situation, and (b) to punch Justine in the face as soon as they could. When Justine switched on her phone in Cape Town, and probably feeling isolated, embarrassed, and terrified, she went into fight/flight mode, and deleted her twitter and FaceBook accounts. IAC, true to their signaled intentions, duly punched her in the face by firing her, along with the lukewarm rejoinder that she really is a nice person at heart. #Fail With the world’s attention, they both killed the stage lights, shrieked, and scuttled off the stage. Justine had 2,000% more followers on twitter, her name was irrevocably linked to AIDS, and www.justinesacco.com was created to link to an AIDS charity. The twitterverse was focused on her next move. As many tweeps said, she dropped the mic. But that’s not all – while firing her effectively placed a distance between IAC and the scandal, IAC also sent a clear and stentorian message to its business partners and current and prospective employees. That message is “If you screw up, we won’t help you, we will stab you in the kidney”. Right now, over Christmas and New Year, you can bet that IAC employees are brushing up their resumes, updating their LinkedIn accounts, and browsing Monster.com. Likewise investors are looking at them as tainted goods. For Justine it is a disaster too, she got publically fired and humiliated just before Christmas, her life is a wreck, and her employability is rock bottom. It has fueled more fear about social media, and in some people’s minds has reinforced two nasty stereotypes – that women shouldn’t have jobs like that, and that social media is bad for companies. What a wonderful outcome – NOT So what if instead of fight/flight mode, they had gone into tend/befriend? What if they had planned for this kind of mistake. What if IAC had been supportive, and said that they would work with Justine to make amends and to apologize properly as soon as she landed. What if they had SMS’d Justine to tell her they would stand by her, and she should talk before doing anything. She could have kept the 8,000 followers, she could have embraced the charity, she could have become relevant. What if her next tweet (in keeping with her style on twitter) was something like: “OMG, totally screwed up, I am such an airhead sometimes! Tried to recycle Sarah Silverman joke, badly, hurt people, sorry sorry sorry!!!!” What if she asked for people to give her a moment to think it through, and asked for suggestions. There would have been the usual flaming and slut-shaming responses ranging from that she should be fired to she should kill herself, but there was a real opportunity for outreach, and there would have been real, thoughtful responses as well. One of them perhaps being that now that www.justinesacco.com already exists, she could take on a role in promoting AIDS awareness, and champion the cause. IAC instead took a cowardly and thoughtless path, and have lost an opportunity to show that they care and that they are supportive. That’s a shame, especially since they could have done good work against a horrifying disease that breeds on fear and ignorance, and is burning up millions of people across the world. That’s a shame.


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