“A Tweet Away From Being Fired”

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:

Justine Sacco tweet

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

work hard and be nice

Image from behance.net

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.

Value diversity

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.

Things Money Can’t Buy

Transcendentalist Theodore Parker once said, “Kodak sells film, but they don’t advertise film. They advertise memories.”

As a public relations student, I’ve taken marketing and other strategic communications courses that have taught the art of “selling” things money can’t buy. This is brilliant when it comes to memories and other warm and fuzzy things, but what about situations where the intangible item the product provides might endorse something a bit more controversial?

For example, many fashion advertisements have very sexual overtones, hint at violence toward women or straight up publish something shocking for the sake of drawing attention to a brand. It’s no secret that advertising (and public relations, while we’re at it) has the capability to bring out the ugliness of our culture. Advertisements have an effect on audiences and if advertisers are not careful, it can get them into trouble. Although there are many blatantly distasteful advertisements, sometimes the ethics of advertising aren’t simply as black and white as we might wish.

Several classical ethics theories lay out groundwork to help us better understand what is ethical and what is not.


Deontology is a rules-based approach to ethics. Similarly to the Ten Commandments, if you break a rule, regardless of circumstances, it is considered wrong according to this theory. Although many advertisers do all they can to avoid breaking the law for obvious reasons, sometimes targeting the public can go too far. In January, the Canadian court found Google, Inc. guilty of infringing Canadian privacy laws for targeted online ads that were triggered by sensitive information, according to Bloomberg News. Although this might not have been Google’s intention, other ethics breaches are not as black and white as this example.


Consequentialism, commonly referred to as ends-based ethics, is the ethical reasoning that actions are neither right nor wrong, according to my ethics professor. This reasoning means that if the consequences are good, the act is good. If the consequences are bad, the act is bad. An example of this in modern advertising is airbrushing models. Although airbrushing is not against the law, it often has an effect on the way women feel about their bodies and sets an unrealistic standard of beauty.  The video below shows an example of the airbrushing process models’ photos go through before being used for advertisements. The model’s before and after shots are shockingly different.

More and more brands are responding to consumers’ demands for realistic models in advertising. One of these brands is Aerie, which recently released the #aerieREAL campaign, which only features un-airbrushed models. Whether this was a clever PR stunt or a genuine interest in reversing the media’s manipulation of women’s bodies, Aerie made a splash and received countless positive media hits because of the campaign. Because the reaction was positive, consequentialism says this was a “right” move in advertising.


Egoism is the reasoning that favors whatever best promotes an individual, organization or corporation. This particular line of thinking places a brand’s long-term self-interest on a pedestal. Many brands are guilty of exemplifying egoism. One example is AXE’s “The AXE Effect” commercial. Not only does it make women look like brainless freaks, but it is highly blown out of proportion and completely unrealistic.


Lastly, utilitarianism is the most democratic of classic ethics theories. This theory of reasoning, fathered by Jeremy Bentham, views “right” as the path leading to the greatest pleasure or least pain for the greatest amount of people. A great example of this is Budweiser’s recent #SaluteAHero campaign. Although many beer advertisements use scantily clad women and parties to draw in their target audience, men in the 18-24 age bracket, Budweiser took a different approach to expressing masculinity. In the brand’s SuperBowl spot this year, the ad tied in patriotism, something nearly everyone in the brand’s target audience can relate with. This tear-jerker positions the brand as purely American. I think that’s pretty heroic.

Where’s the Bottom Line?

Although it’s easy to victimize advertisers as liars and distasteful creators of propaganda, it’s important to take a step back and objectively view the situation they face in their work on a day-to-day basis.  In Mixed Media, Thomas Bivins wrote, “…advertising is required by its very nature to paint such a picture-consumption leads to pleasure, which leads to happiness.” In our society, each product is bought to fill a tangible or intangible purpose. “Happiness” is not the same thing for everyone, but we all buy products that make us feel more beautiful, in control, fulfilled and accepted by our peers. Advertisers, who are humans too, know these reasons and position their brand’s products to consumers to affect purchasing patterns. As we all know, this is often taken a notch too far.

With so many ideas of ethics and what is right and wrong it’s easy for advertisers to be confused about where to draw the line. Although it can be tricky, it’s vital to have a finger on the pulse of your client’s brand voice and the industry standards to understand what is expected of you and do your job well without compromising professional values and provisions.

Which classical theory do you think is most ethical?

Is ‘Gray Thursday’ the New Thanksgiving?

Screen shot 2013-11-30 at 2.45.56 PMFor decades, Black Friday has been known as the official start to the holiday buying season, but this year, “Gray Thursday,” also known as Thanksgiving, has caused a lot of controversy. Eager shoppers around the nation skipped out on turkey dinners to score low prices on TVs, tablets and other goods at many chain retailers looking to boost the bottom line, such as WalMart, Kohl’s, K-Mart, Best Buy, JC Penney, Sears, Macy’s, Staples, Toys R’Us and Target.

Outrageous lines and bickering shoppers are old news, but this year’s scramble to get the best deals resulted in an outpour of user-generated videos, images and tweets hashtagged #WalMartFights. Content depicts people swarming the shelves, pushing and shoving and some even show people getting arrested. BuzzFeed catches some of the madness in this post and PRNewser called the hashtag incident a PR Nightmare for WalMart.

Screen shot 2013-11-30 at 3.37.43 PM

Forbe’s reports a record-breaking day of sales on Thanksgiving with more than 10 million cash register transactions between 6am and 10pm, a victory for the company financially, but hardly a success for the employees who missed out on family time to wrangle crowds and the shoppers who were victims of violence during the shopping event. However, WalMart’s response to the violence and chaos during Thanksgiving and Black Friday hardly assumed responsibility or even acknowledged what had happened.

I’m all about shopping and getting great deals, but when lives are put on the line for stuff that will someday be put in a landfill, I have a problem with that. One of my favorite family Thanksgiving traditions is reflecting on the first Thanksgiving and sharing what we’re thankful for. How did the first Thanksgiving transform through generations to all of this chaos and violence?

Image source: Someecards