Before she boarded a plane from London to South Africa in December 2013, Justine Sacco, the director of corporate communications for media company IAC, tweeted a series of snarky observations to her 170 followers. The last read, "Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!"
During the flight, while Sacco was offline, her tweet went viral and she was deluged with Twitter replies that ranged from disgust to anger. Before long, the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet started trending worldwide, and there were increasing demands that Sacco be fired. Eventually, she was.
Sacco's not the only one to experience the wrath -- and consequences -- of a Twitter pile-on. Earlier that year, developer and tech evangelist Adria Richards complained on Twitter about two male developers who swapped what she felt were offensive jokes at a developer conference. Two days later, the man responsible for the joke was fired. He posted his account of what happened under a pseudonym in the online forum Hacker News, which led to a barrage of threatening tweets against Richards and a denial of service attack on SendGrid, Richards' employer. Eventually, SendGrid let her go.
Then there was the case of Gene Morphis, CFO of clothing retailer Francesca's, who in 2012 tweeted "Board meeting. Good numbers=Happy Board," sending Francesca's stock soaring 15%, exposing the company to possible SEC scrutiny -- and costing Morphis his job.
Or the employee of New Media Strategies, the agency that ran Chrysler's Twitter account, who in 2011 posted under Chrysler's handle: "I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to [expletive] drive." Chrysler's tweet was quickly deleted, but news of it still went viral. The agency fired the perpetrator -- and Chrysler fired the agency.
Social media mishaps can have dire consequences for both the employees involved and the company, as IAC, SendGrid, Francesca's and Chrysler learned. And as social media usage continues to permeate the workplace and blur work-life lines, some companies are finding themselves thrust into a scrutinizing spotlight.
But while there's no predicting how social media users might react to an employee's thoughtless comment, controversial statement or off-color joke, companies can minimize the damage of this type of incident -- if they are prepared.
Here's a look at practices that your business can put in place to prevent these incidents, plus tips to diffuse them, should you be caught in the crosshairs.
Prevention means training
Justine Sacco, Adria Richards, Gene Morphis and their employers were forced to deal with the aftermath of their tweets. For Sacco, Richards and Morphis, that meant finding new jobs. For their companies, it meant healing their bruised reputations. But in fact, according to Rob Begg, VP of enterprise strategy at Hootsuite, a popular social media management tool, both situations were preventable.
Most businesses lean on social media policies to detail rules and acceptable use, but that alone isn't enough, Begg says.
"Most companies are pretty good about having social media policies in place, but what most lack is social media training," he says. "Not everyone understands what's private and public or what you can and can't share. Not many employees understand why all of this is so important."
In addition to tactical training on how to use social media, corporate training should also cover the strategic side, Begg says. For example, employees should learn how to curate and share content that reflects their personal and professional brand.
Businesses can easily cover both in an hour-long session, he adds. "You don't need to make this arduous. When you're onboarded at Hootsuite, for example, a social media coach shows up and says, 'This is how we look at social media, here are the things you should think about before you share something.'"
Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, says that, in his 30-plus years in crisis management, 90% of incidents have been entirely preventable through training.
"Crises that originate online like viral tweets are easily preventable, which is why it reflects so poorly on your whole organization when something like this happens," he says. "It makes people question your training, hiring and supervision."
Training employees on social media best-practices has other advantages, too: "Not only do companies that train employees have a better chance at avoiding embarrassing or destructive situations," Begg says, "they benefit because well-trained employees feel more comfortable sharing the things that companies actually want them to share."
5 steps to defusing a social media crisis
Even when you've put in preventative measures, sometimes stuff happens. Should an employee's post cause problems internally and externally, it's important that businesses pause before they react.
"The biggest mistake an employer makes is to shoot first and ask questions later," says Erin Foley, a partner in the labor and employment group at law firm Seyfarth Shaw. "That's where businesses run into trouble later on." This could include wrongful termination lawsuits, she says.
To prevent threats of litigation, businesses need to take a measured approach to assess and defuse the situation, and then consider what, if any, consequences will be dealt. There are five steps that you can take to minimize the damage.
1. Issue a statement. Although you're going to want to investigate an incident before making any assumptions about who (if anyone) is at fault, you need to first issue a holding statement, according to crisis management expert Bernstein.
This first statement may contain very little substantive information, but should express compassion, sympathy and regret for anyone who's been hurt or affected by the post. Be wary of the tone of the statement, he says. The public may construe a defensive statement as acknowledging guilt or culpability.
"The goal in crisis communications is to come across as confident, compassionate and competent -- all of which require a prompt, rapid response and signal that the organization is on the case," he says. A holding statement, Bernstein suggests, might possibly say something like: "We very much regret any concern this has caused to our customers and all who care about our company, and we will be going to great lengths to make this right and prevent it from happening again."
Additional statements may be necessary later, Bernstein says. These might detail the findings from an investigation and any disciplinary actions the company takes. Be sure to communicate that what was said does not reflect the company's views or beliefs, and detail what you're doing to ensure it doesn't happen again, he advises.
Hootsuite's Begg adds that businesses should also consider who posts the statement and where. Some companies may choose to tweet a statement from the corporate handle, while others choose to publish a statement on the company website.
"Some companies might have an executive that tweets and posts frequently, so it might make sense for them to respond to what happened. That might help diffuse the situation, too," Begg says. "Whatever you decide is best, be consistent with your communications."
2. Investigate. When an incident breaks, don't jump to conclusions or make brash decisions, attorney Foley says. Instead, launch an investigation. The purpose of this is two-fold: To ensure you're not wrongly accusing an employee of something he or she didn't actually do, and to document your due diligence should you find that the employee did violate a policy.
In the investigation, you'll want to determine that the account actually belongs to the employee in question, and that the employee did, in fact, publish the post.
"It's important to remember that not everything you read on the Internet is true, and everyone deserves their opportunity to tell their side of the story," Foley says. "I've run into situations where an employee's kid made the post or someone accessed their computer while they were away at lunch. Don't assume anything."
3. Put the situation in perspective. It's important to determine where the incident falls on the severity spectrum, Begg says.
"It's easy to overreact and see it as the end of the world. If something is truly offensive, then by all means, approach it with that severity," he says. "But also acknowledge that sometimes people make mistakes. There's a clear difference between those things, and ones that are a clear violation of policy."
Be wary of whether you're giving the situation more weight just because it happened on social media, Foley adds.
"Let's pretend this happened in an email, or it was a comment made in the lunch room," she says. "Just because it happened on social media and people got upset doesn't necessarily mean it was in violation of any policy."
Businesses also need to take into consideration the employee who was involved. "If you're in charge of running the company's Twitter or Facebook page and you violate a policy, it's much different than if you're Joe who works in facilities," Foley adds. "You also need to consider the reach of the incident and how broad its tentacles are. Do they have three or 30,000 followers?"
4. Be consistent. Consistency is key when considering any disciplinary actions for the employee in question, Foley says.
"If you have never terminated someone for a violation of the code of conduct in a normal circumstance, ask yourself what about the social media post caused you to view it with that much more concern," she advises.
It could be that the post was more widely distributed or that what was said was more offensive or egregious than previous precedents. Either way, there needs to be a clear understanding about why you're deviating from past decisions.
"This is where we see the most pitfalls with employee litigation -- in situations where they're not treated consistently," she says. "If you treat someone differently, that's fine as long as there's a justification for it."
5. Debrief employees. Depending on the scope of the incident, consider sending an internal memo to employees to discuss the situation, Bernstein advises. "You need to realize that every employee is a PR representative of your organization, whether you want them to be or not," he says.
Your memo should detail what happened and the company's stance. It should also detail who on staff employees should contact if they receive inquiries from people outside the business, he says.
"These things happen, but it's your responsibility to know how to react to them with your employee's and the business's best interests in mind," Foley says. "Consider training, and know how to handle a crisis if it happens."