If anyone still doubts the power of social media, look no further than the case of Justine Sacco (story available here).
While en route between NYC and Cape Town she posted several insensitive tweets. By the time her flight had landed, her tweets had gone viral, becoming the number one trending topic on Twitter- and it wasn’t a positive response. Even though her Twitter account was deleted and the posts taken down, her name will now be inextricably linked with those posts forever.
Her comments were incredibly stupid, inappropriate, and indefensible. At the same time we have all dealt with the frustrations of travel and I’m sure can understand her mindset at the time of posting these tweets. Should she have lost her job (in PR, nonetheless)? Absolutely. However, should Justine Sacco be forever defined by one careless mistake? I’m not so sure…but permanence and virality are the rules of the social media landscape, and by playing the social media game you are tacitly agreeing to abide by its rules.
There is a lesson here not only for individuals, but brands as well. As brands dive headfirst into social media as new way to connect with customers, structure needs to be put in place. Social media can be a powerful tool for defining a brand, but is wrought with the same dangers that individuals face, and more.
There are numerous examples of successful social media campaigns reinvigorating brands (see some examples here), but there are also instances of rogue tweets/posts tarnishing brands, sometimes irreparably. Companies should have a clearly defined process, with checks and balances or editorial oversight, to ensure all social media posts are on message and don’t cause any (unintended) controversy.
On a personal note, I do feel concerned about how social media will impact future generations. Most of my youthful transgressions preceded the existence of Facebook, but our children may not have the same freedom to make mistakes and learn from them- instead of being defined by them.