By unpopular opinion: Why Sam Biddle is wrong about Justine Sacco

Sam Biddle, formerly of Valleywag, broke the Internet this week.  His article on the unfortunate fate of Justine Sacco, who you no doubt remember from last year as the former head of corporate communications for IAC, was all over my Twitter feed, the junky infotainment sites I get my news from and was the talk of our office.

If you don’t remember, last December Justine Sacco tweeted a life altering tweet: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

She tweeted that right before her 17 hour flight to South Africa, and the tweet gained traction and spiraled out of control among the interwebs and led to the trending Twitter hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet.

Sam Biddle wrote that he couldn’t understand how Sacco, as the global head of communications, could have tweeted such a crude and vile message. As a communications director, she no doubt understood the value of social media and its far reaching influence; you have to look no further than the Spaghetti Oh’s tweet, the Red Cross tweet or the Domino’s tweet.

Biddle writes that he met with Sacco before, and she told him that her tweet was actually intended to mock and mimic the things racist people would have said.

Uh huh.

They stayed in touch, but he never understood Sacco’s tweet and her mindset until he made a stupid mistake this past October that cost him his job:

And then, this past October, while sitting distracted and tired at my desk, riffing on the twisted online movement against “social justice warriors” in video games, I wrote a tweet of my own: “Ultimately #GamerGate is reaffirming what we’ve known to be true for decades: nerds should be constantly shamed and degraded into submission.”

Impulsively, and sort of laughing to myself, I added another, saying that we should “Bring Back Bullying” to counter this rising tide of web militancy. It was insincere and over in an instant, to me at least.

But within a few hours, thanks in part to my similarly trigger-happy and trolly editor Max Read,I watched a whirlpool of spleen and choler swelling till it had sucked in most of my energy and attention, along with that of many of my coworkers. Hundreds of people tweeted or emailed me or my editors; blogs and minor internet personalities sprang into action to challenge me. Their demands started with my firing and escalated from there.

After #GamerGate, Biddle felt like he could relate to Sacco’s demise; his own careless tweet had landed him in the eye of the social media storm amongst demands for his job and career. He says he can now understand her plight, and recaps the following from their communications:

Justine Sacco has a PR job she enjoys now, but she deserves the best and biggest PR job, whatever that may be. Give it all to her. In the depths of the Gamergate blues, Sacco IMed me to ask how it was all going, and offered one piece of advice: “Just don’t engage.” Without any discussion, she knew the only divine truth of the internet: Do nothing. Never tweet. Never apologize. Never say anything at all. Be an inert bundle of molecules and let the world tear itself apart around you.

I want to make a few points here:

  • Why do people not learn their lesson for engaging online? Time and time again, people are fired from their jobs for making stupid and insensitive mistakes online, and media are not exempt.
    • Man, I love his account, because it’s freaking hilarious, but Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times tows the line every day. He’s aware, though, and has publicly noted that people get fired for their mistakes online. If NYT journalists, who uphold the cornerstone of democracy, are at risk for their social activity, then so are you if you have a pulse.
  • I’m not sure why Sacco deserves the “best and biggest PR job.” Sure, she may be talented, but what does her epic blunder have to do with her being deserving of the best career?
  • Last but not least, I can’t imagine a more stupid thing to do than not apologize when you’ve publicly offended an entire group of people. Don’t engage, don’t let it get to you — I agree. But not apologize? Stupidity.

And I think that’s where Sacco went wrong. She was ghostly silent while the Internet tore at her like a wild animal. She didn’t make a peep. She should have issued some statement, something to note that she realized she made a mistake; that she was sorry. It’s PR 101, and that was (is?) her forte. She’s now the stuff of textbooks, of online articles…of legend. But the reason she’s generated such a bad reputation and her name lives on in infamy is in large part because she let the world chime in and declare her fate. She’s had chances to redeem herself, as much as one can, but if you let everyone around you publicly put words in your mouth and in your intentions, it’s impossible to shape and publicly declare your own opinions and notions.

Defense can be a risky game, but she failed to even try, and she let the world weigh in. Weigh in it has.

You can follow me on Twitter at @abigailjaffe.

Social media’s two-way communication enables consumers to play pivotal role in corporate decisions

Social media has brought many changes to the public relations industry, but the most important leap has been the shift of communication methods with public relations professionals and their publics. Communication has become a conversation, instead of the speech, or linear method it used to be. Dr. Sahar Khamis, assistant professor of communication at the University of Maryland, describes the general trends social media have introduced to the public relations field. 

An essential requirement for PR professionals used to be building and maintaining relationships with journalists who would “push” their agendas to the public, but that requirement has weakened in importance as social media allows PR professionals to instantly reach their audiences.

Social media requires companies to give stakeholders a say in corporate decisions

Because PR is about building relationships with audiences, social media makes the core of good PR easier to do. According to Top Rank Blog,

Human connections made possible by listening and replying via social media bring the audience closer to a brand and softens the barrier that exists when people feel as if they’re talking to a company that views them strictly as a potential sale.

To foster better relationships, companies can connect with consumers who are seeking solutions to problems, and company representatives can help out. Because consumers can hop over to the company’s Facebook or Twitter page and post complaints or praise, it is essential for businesses to actively maintain and monitor their pages and reach out to their stakeholders. This trend helps companies increase brand and consumer loyalty. 

For example, many businesses have begun to involve their consumers in product development. As Communications Passionista describes, Lay’s Potato Chips launched an intensive campaign which asked the public to invent potato chip flavors. The winner would have the honor of his or her flavor launched and be awarded $1 million.

However, there is a flip side to social media: stakeholders also believe that increased interaction means they have more influence within a company, and monitoring and responding to complaints and conversation is essential to maintaining the company’s reputation. 

 

This infographic, based on research from Maritz and Evolve24, shows 83 percent of consumers were very satisfied or satisfied when companies responded to their tweets. This positive reaction emphasizes the importance of interacting with customers: companies have the opportunity to make consumers happy by simply addressing their comments. Southwest Airlines, for example, devotes a total of six employees to managing their social media and responding to customer complaints and concerns. Perhaps not coincidentally, Southwest was also rated highest in customer satisfaction in 2013.

Khamis describes how consumers play a role in corporate decisions via social media, and how corporations can be held accountable when they don’t consider their consumers.

Additionally, The Real Time Report states 88 percent of consumers are somewhat or far less likely to buy from a brand that has unanswered complaints on the company’s social media page.

Companies must remember to address their consumers on social media, because if customers aren’t happy with the company’s response, or lack thereof, they may take their business elsewhere.

Social media may render the standard press release obsolete 

Social media has also warranted the adaption of the press release, according to Mashable. Vistaprint PR manager Jeff Esposito believes the standard press release, invented in 1906 by Ivy Lee, will take three forms in the future:

  • Video with links to company site
  • Evolution of social media release
  • Stay the same, with standard boilerplate and stock information

The popular blog pr-squared agrees that news releases may become extinct. Because many Internet users head straight to social networks in lieu of search engines, social media present ample opportunities for company information to appear in searches, which in turn drives brand recognition. 

Michael Pranikoff, Global Director of Emerging Media for PR Newswire, a news release website, agrees with the importance of companies making their news releases and information searchable. He believes in the future of the news release, but that its traditional approach must be re-assessed. Because consumers today must be considered by companies, releases must be tailored to address these audiences. 

The release may take on some new forms and use new ways to communicate the message, but the idea of the release is far from dead.

Not all PR practitioners feel the same way. Khamis believes the standard press release will continue to exist, but will be supplemented with social media.

Whether social media will entirely replace traditional messaging platforms is up in the air, but social media’s effect on PR is undisputed. To summarize, new media has primarily influenced PR in:

  • Changing the field from one-way to two-way communication
  • Involving consumers in corporate decisions
  • Slowly evolving the news release

At its core, social media presents a new requirement for companies to involve their publics in corporate decisions whenever possible. Publics should also be considered in company decisions which don’t directly involve them, including press release platforms, relationships with PR professionals and crafting strategic media messages. 

Facing the Facebook Generation

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My Facebook profile. Do the notifications excite you? They do for most people.

I won’t preach to you all; I’ll just tell you my personal experiences with Facebook.

I held out for as long as I could in high school without succumbing. I didn’t want to get addicted, or be a part of those secretive conversations about who did what to whom. Nevertheless, because the (student) editor of our newspaper only communicated via Facebook, I succumbed. And have regretted it many a time.

Yes, it’s a great communication tool, for all the family scattered abroad and the classmates we haven’t talked to in years and that person we never had a relationship with. But unless you’re a supernatural wizard, and pathways are not reinforced by neurotransmitters in your brain, you’ve probably spent many a night looking people up you’ve never even met and perusing their photos. 

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More times than I care to acknowledge, I’ve seen someone walking down the street and felt a pang of familiarity. After I’ve wracked my brain to figure out how I know them, it hits me: I’ve seen their Facebook profile. Or how about when you meet someone and you tell them you’ve met before, but you don’t remember where? They don’t remember you. And then it hits you: Facebook. Caught red-handed. 

How about those beautiful bright red notifications that confirm people think you’re as funny, smart, or witty as you think you are? Or when your profile alerts the public that you’ve gone to an event? Tells everyone that you do, in fact, do worthwhile and fun things with your time with other people that are equally as popular? 

Oooh. Friends. Now that is a touchy subject. I know people who literally have 3,000+ Facebook friends. Now really, what’s the point? I’m not a perpetual friender, so I only have around 180 friends.

Only.

Should I feel sad and friendless? Or should I just feel sorry for the people unable to differentiate between their real friends and fake ones? Do they friend every single person that they meet? It’s the only answer I can possibly fathom to be remotely accurate.

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How about when people tag you in photos so you don’t have to upload them yourself like all the other losers out there? Really, now. You’re above the uploading stage. (Fake it ’til you make it, anyway.)

 I have so many college friends who constantly upload drunk party photos of themselves. Why is that? Because they look good for these events on the weekends and they want their other school friends to see they can look decent if they put in the effort? Is it because they want to show how many “real life” friends they have and how these people like them enough to get drunk with them?

Well, after all that, I’m still here and kickin’. An active Facebook community member. I still have my account. I nearly deactivated it in the summer, but held onto it because it was just too d*** useful. We’ve all claimed that we want to deactivate our accounts. Been there, done that, I know. I’m not unique in that regard. My account has come in handy several times in the past few weeks, from contacting people about spring classes to finding out about events to even crowdsourcing for a class assignment. I’ve told myself after college I’m done. Deleting my account. But I’m going into PR, and I’ll be hard-pressed to remain social-media-less. So it seems I’m screwed for now, and also for the long term. At least I have one thing going for me:

Twitter will have to wait. 

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