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3 Lessons From Justine Sacco's Twitter 'Joke'

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

Justine Sacco, a former PR executive at a powerful technology company, sparked a firestorm of controversy after posting a joke on Twitter about AIDS in Africa on Friday. Sacco's employer, media company IAC, fired her on Saturday.

Sacco's tweet, sent before she boarded a flight for Cape Town, read: "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!" By the time she arrived in South Africa, the tweet had gone viral.

Here are three lessons to take away from Sacco's Twitter debacle:

  1. Actions speak louder than words. An apology is key, but sometimes "sorry" just doesn't cut it. Just as how Papa John's dealt with its racist voicemail controversy, the company here knew full well the need to terminate the offensive employee and sacked Sacco. Doing so sends a strong message to the public -- and to the other employees -- that such behavior is absolutely unacceptable and will not be tolerated by your company.
  2. Beware a viral PR nightmare. As Forbes points out, if Sacco had been the victim of a Twitter hacking and was actually totally innocent, the damage would still have been done: The self-righteous mobbish public and their knee-jerk deluge of negative press would have vilified Sacco and the company largely to the same degree. Both her and the company's reputations would be indelibly stained on the Internet. The unfortunate lesson here is that the "Twitterfly Effect" is more about entertainment than truth, so prep for social media damage control -- whether or not your employee is actually to blame.
  3. Implement social media filters. We often discuss the need to rein in lower-level employees' social media access for liability reasons but neglect to apply the same mantra to those in upper-management positions like Sacco. Though maturity may come with age and experience, the sad reality is that many high-ranking employees fail to outgrow their deeply entrenched discriminatory or highly offensive feelings. Lest the public think the company shares in those troubling sentiments, limit such high-level employees' access to social media.

Finally, remind your employees that AIDS jokes with a racist garnish are pretty much never funny. #eyeroll #facepalm.

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