Free speech means you can say what you want, right?
Not without consequences—a painful lesson PR pro Justine Sacco learned last December when she tweeted what many people labeled “racist” and “insensitive.”
Her tweet is pictured below:
Shortly after she boarded her plane in London, the tweet went viral. While she was unavailable on her flight to South Africa, her company fired her, Twitter users mocked her with the hash tag #HasJustineLandedYet and reporters waited to interview her at the airport in South Africa. Needless to say, she was embarrassed and ashamed. It didn’t take her long to post an apology, but her name now carries the weight of her costly mistake.
As one of “The Five” on Fox said, “We are all one tweet away from being fired.”
Note that Sacco was never arrested or fined by the government for what she tweeted. The First Amendment protected her rights to free speech, but just because there was no legal action involved doesn’t mean there were no consequences. In addition, she was a PR professional, which should imply an expertise in reputation management. When she landed in South Africa she had to some reputation management of her own to handle.
The First Amendment allows U.S. citizens:
- Freedom of religion
- Freedom of speech
- Freedom of the press
- Freedom of assembly
- Right to petition
These are all beautiful rights to have and we are fortunate to be entitled to our own opinions, practice whatever religions we choose and protest. In the case above, Sacco was allowed to tweet essentially whatever she wanted, but obviously suffered consequences.
This freedom is not the same in every country. In the UK, social media users can be prosecuted for what they say online. According to The Daily Beast, for example, a Staffordshire man was arrested and had his computer confiscated for a tasteless Mandela joke. (I’ll let you look that one up.) Furthermore, the article states that, “In the United Kingdom, it is now the police’s remit to protect communities and individuals from “alarm,” “distress,” and “offense.”” Is this method of enforcement taking things a step too far? Possibly, but it can be argued that our current world is one where what is said on social media is amplified in a way that has a broader impact than just sticks and stones.
Take Paul Chambers, for example. Brian Solis explains in a blog post how this 27-year-old Twitter user got into some legal trouble with a recent tweet in 2010 that essentially threatened to blow up the airport. Whether or not his tweet was taken out of context, it isn’t okay to even hint at taking action that might threaten the lives of others. This is no different than yelling about a bomb at an airport or yelling, “fire” in a movie theater. We have freedom of speech and “Freedom of Tweet” as Solis calls it, but when what we say might infer a risk to someone’s life, there’s a good chance legal action will be taken. He was fined, faced conviction and also lost his job.
Our First Amendment rights should be celebrated, but with rights come great responsibility, especially as a public relations professional or organization. As PR pros we are expected to value ethical use of advocacy, honesty, expertise, fairness, independence, loyalty and fairness, according to the PRSA Code of Ethics.
Tweeting anything that might be racist, unfair or dishonest most likely reflects poorly on your company, not just you. And besides, what can you gain by saying something that might be hurtful to someone else?
It all comes down to professionalism and respect. No one wants to hire a PR person that can’t even maintain their own image, much less, their client’s.
Know your resources
Know the PRSA Code of Ethics and stay current with industry news because with the nature of social media it can be easy to forget the impact words can have on others. In addition, many companies have values or specific Code of Ethics for employees to know and practice. Some companies even have a social media policy, which can be helpful.
Many of the people called out for what they’ve tweeted have been accused of being racist or ignorant. It’s so important to value diversity because diversity is everywhere. It’s not wrong to be different and although no one can possibly agree with everything, it’s still important to be respectful and objective, even on personal social media accounts.
ALWAYS think before you post
It seems silly to remind people to think before using social media, but everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes on Twitter are now more costly than ever. Always think about what you say and how it can impact others before tweeting or posting online.
Although we are each one tweet away from losing our jobs, it’s important not to see this as a limitation, but instead a protection for our employers, our profession and even our own credibility.