Once there was a simpler time. We lived in a world where you could do, say or write something likely to be considered offensive, insensitive, or just dumb and only a very few people would know about it unless you were already famous. If Dr. Palmer had shot Cecil the Lion in 1996, we wouldn’t know a thing about it. (There certainly wouldn’t be a Wikipedia page about it.) Those days are over. Internet justice in 2015 is swift and merciless.
Voice to the Voiceless or Villagers with Pitchforks?
Social media is a world where everyone has the opportunity, unfiltered and free, to say anything they want. This can be a powerful force for good as it gives marginalized individuals and groups a platform for expression and community building. But it can also destroy reputations, careers and lives in alarming and disproportional ways. At least three people are known to have committed suicide following the Ashley Madison hack and subsequent outing of users, for example. Countless others have been fired over jokes that flopped, unpopular opinions or momentary lapses in judgment that once posted online can never be taken back.
What it Means for Brands
The public pressure to fire an employee who is the target of social shaming can be difficult to resist. New York-based internet empire InterActive Corp, which owns The Daily Beast, Ask.com, Dictionary.com and Match.com, discovered this when a PR rep for the firm posted a Tweet that read, “Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!” Unbeknownst to the poster who had turned off her phone for the long flight, the post (which she later said was an attempt at mocking her own privilege) went viral and was picked up by Buzzfeed and other publications. Calls for the company to dismiss her or face the wrath of the Twitterverse came immediately and that’s exactly what they did.
There’s no one answer for how to respond to that type of situation. Decision makers need to take into account the best interest of the brand, but we must also remember that human beings make poor decisions from time to time. We always have. The difference is that now one wrong move can be amplified and take on a life of its own. When it comes to social shaming, the punishment does not always fit the crime.
As the public face of our brands, PR professionals need to take an active role in helping everyone with a connection to the brand understand that the line between their personal and professional lives is thin, if it exists at all. Cautionary tales like these can help people understand the difficult position they can put their company in when something online goes awry. Once something hits the web, the Internet holds the cards and neither individuals nor brands have the power to get them back.
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