Social media is arguably the most powerful gadget in a public relations professional’s toolbox. Every day, millions of people across the globe connect with each other on platforms that enable nearly instantaneous communication. Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook are great places to promote your clients’ services and connect with consumers one-on-one to troubleshoot and answer questions. However, social media platforms are also where many individuals flock to critique, vent and express their frustration at various companies’ and other people’s poor conduct. Here are a few social media mishaps that budding communicators can learn from before they’re doomed to repeat them.
On December 30, 2013, New York public relations executive Justine Sacco boarded an 11-hour flight to Capetown, South Africa. At the time, Sacco was serving as the senior director of corporate communications at InterActiveCorp, also known as IAC, an Internet and media holding company that manages entities like Care.com, Investopedia, Byrdie and more. Just before she hopped on the plane, she tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” This poorly worded joke was interpreted as racist commentary by many of the people who viewed it.
Her tweet garnered hundreds of impressions and sparked the creation of the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet. When Sacco reconnected to WiFi after reaching her destination, she was inundated with angry replies. Mere hours later, IAC terminated her employment. In the days and weeks following her initial tweet, people unearthed more of Sacco’s controversial social media posts, photographers followed her alongside her daily routines and the disgraced publicist had difficulty finding work.
Sacco’s situation teaches young professionals that they should be mindful about what they post online. In December 2013, Sacco had less than 200 followers on Twitter, but her small audience didn’t stop her from becoming a trending topic on the platform.
On April 15, 2013, two domestic terrorists planted pressure cooker bombs near the end of the usual route of the annual Boston Marathon. The bombs detonated as several thousand runners had yet to cross the finish line and crowds of onlookers swarmed the area, killing three and injuring 260, with 17 people losing limbs.
Since the attack, companies sponsoring the race have been very careful with the wording used in advertisements to promote the marathon. Four years later, on April 17, 2017, Adidas sent out a congratulatory email to finishers. The subject line of the message read, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!” Dozens of people took to Twitter to express their disgust at the company’s messaging and the use of the word “survived.”
Adidas’s run-in with disgruntled athletes shows public relations professionals that we should be extremely careful about our wording in certain communications materials. It’s important to research the history and culture of major events to understand what is and isn’t appropriate to include in your marketing efforts.
3. Woody Harrelson’s Reddit AMA.
Reddit, a forum and discussion-based social media platform, has a long-running tradition of hosting “Ask Me Anything” interviews, also known as AMAs. During an AMA, an interviewee makes an initial post on r/IAmA or another subreddit of their choosing indicating that they’re open to a conversation, and registered members comment under their post with questions. Notable participants in AMAs include various politicians, celebrities and scientists, but anyone can make a post to start an AMA.
On February 3, 2021, actor and playwright Woody Harrelson created an account on Reddit and opened himself up to questions to promote his upcoming film, Rampart. Instead of answering questions about his personal life, work ethic and rehearsal techniques, Harrelson dodged inquiries about anything except Rampart, coming off as impersonal, cold and self-absorbed. Some members threatened to boycott the film as a result of this misstep.
Harrelson’s mishandling of his Reddit AMA teaches public relations professionals that we should be aware of the culture surrounding different social media platforms. Users of forums like Reddit, microblogging services like Tumblr and Twitter and image-based apps like TikTok and Snapchat communicate in completely different ways. When conducting media training with clients who are unfamiliar with certain social media apps, it’s crucial to discuss the intricacies of the subcultures housed on them.
Navigating social media mindfully and gracefully in light of tragedies and mistakes may seem nightmarish, but it’s an essential part of crisis communications. These scary stories from the last decade of social media’s rise to prominence hold many lessons for young public relations professionals to reflect on.
Melania Toczko is a senior at DePaul University majoring in communication and media with minors in marketing and public relations. She is the vice president of professional development of DePaul’s PRSSA Chapter and a district ambassador for the Midwest. She has completed several communications-related internships and looks forward to a fulfilling career in public relations. In her free time, she enjoys exercising, cooking and watching movies wit