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Tweet heard ‘round the world provides cautionary tale on misuse of powerful tool

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When writing regularly for an online publication, plans and projects can change within a nanosecond. While researching the second in a series of articles on the Affordable Care Act – this one on the impact of the new law on the job market – an email from someone interviewed the night before led to a complete change in plans for the focus of this latest blog.

The interview subject sent an email with a link to a tweet from Justine Sacco, the just-fired Senior Director of Communications for IAC, a Fortune 1000 Internet and media communications company. In the “tweet heard ‘round the world,” as it’s already been referred to repeatedly on the net, Sacco wrote the following damning statement: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” IAC moved immediately to terminate her and condemn the sentiments expressed in her tweet.

Volumes will be written on the incredulous bigotry and ignorance of Sacco’s statement and she has paid a hefty price, losing a job while in flight from London to Capetown, South Africa just a few hours after sending her mind-bogglingly dumb tweet. By the time she arrived in South Africa, a vacationing tourist and avid Twitter user became self-appointed journalist and was there to snap her photos, interview her father and send updates to the now thousands of media people already following the despicably sad story. (Amazingly, it was really Twitters avid followers who broke this story and formed their own circle of commentary and reaction on the subject that has already garnered thousands and thousands of responses See https://twitter.com/search?q=HasJustineLandedYet&src=tyah&f=realtime4

Sacco did issue an apology on Sunday "for being insensitive to this (AIDS) crisis -- which does not discriminate by race, gender or sexual orientation, but which terrifies us all uniformly -- and to the millions of people living with the virus, I am ashamed." But in so far as public relations faux pas are concerned, it's the metaphorical equivalent of pouring water onto a fire after the house has already burned down; If past history is any indication, based on the egregiousness of the original statement, it's unlikely that the public reaction to her mea culpa will be "no worries Justine; all's forgiven.".

Since this column is dedicated to helping serve the interests of those looking to navigate and build careers, there’s little point served rehashing all of the reasons why her tweet was deplorable and merited condemnation, especially for someone whose role specialized in use of interactive communications. Instead, for the purpose of this portion of The Examiner, the Sacco debacle serves as a cautionary tale on avoiding the perils of taking a cavalier approach to communications on Twitter.

The following eight rules may prove helpful to professionals who don't wish to risk exposing themselves to a similar nightmare to the one that Sacco has created for herself.

Eight rules of Thumb for Avoiding Career Sabotage on Twitter

1. Never use Twitter or other Social Media to jest, make fun of others or say anything that could be construed as critical of another’s race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, emotional or physical disabilities or virtually anything that could come back to bite you.

2. Avoid tweeting when angry, emotionally upset or when you feel that you have been wronged, mistreated or victimized.

3. Never express a view on a socially explosive issue by using sacrcasm, facetiousness or tongue in cheek statements. Twitter is a 140-character medium that is not conducive to subtlety. (In public relations, anytime you have to explain what you “really meant to say was” the damage is already done. It’s far easier not sending a tweet that pushes the envelope in the first place).

4. Save sensitive tweets into a Word or text file or even a draft email prior to sending. If the draft tweet could be seen as something that has even the most remote chance of backfiring, ask yourself if there is even one good justification that can trump the 999 million reasons to opt instead for everyone’s best friend on the keyboard – the delete button.

5. Try to steer clear of the often inflammatory, divisive and personally vicious dialogues that populate discussion of sensitive issues that have become fodder on the internet. There are going to be some people who will agree with your opinion and others who passionately disagree to such an extent that they demean , belittle and condemn you merely because of a difference in opinion. Don’t get caught up in this; consider blocking these individuals.

6. Utilize Twitter for what it’s designed to do – provide the most powerful, fastest and efficient way on the net to promote a message, brand, product or service.

7. Twitter is not a toy: Don’t utilize it to circulate messages for fun and entertainment unless your tweets are completely innocuous, not only to yourself but to the interests of others.

8. If you perceive Twitter as a private, instantaneous way to communicate discreetly with your own hand-picked network, think of it instead as something that is going out to the universe (twitterverse, actually) and over which you have no control.

Twitter has become the most transparent, least protected form of Internet communication in existence today. Sacco thought her tweet was going out to a private, trusted network of 500 or so friends, relatives, peers and acquaintances. But because what she wrote was so ill advised and offensive, it has now been seen by millions throughout the world and her life and livelihood have been damaged severely.

No doubt, Sacco wishes she could crawl under a rock big enough to shut the world out for a while. With the power of Twitter, there is no rock big enough to shield someone from the inevitable cascade of condemnation that will shower down upon those who misuse the medium to spout hateful ignorance.

Editor’s note: Quick thinking by Aid for Africa, a partnership of some 85 charities to raise funds for a variety of causes to help the continent – including the fight against AIDS – has led to creation of a new domain, justinesacco.com, which links directly to a site where people can make donations to benefit impoverished populations in sub-Saharan Africa. (The next installment of this portion of the Examiner will revert back as promised to examining the impact of the Affordable Care Act on the job market).

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