Brian Williams’ predicament reminds us of how a reputation is ruined in an instant. In our increasingly hyper-connected and always-on world, disaster is just a click away, even for the most ethical of individuals.
You may have heard about the case of Justine Sacco, a 30-year-old corporate communications specialist with a company called IAC. On a trip from John F. Kennedy Airport to South Africa in late 2013 via Heathrow, she did what any self-respecting millennial would do, tweet random thoughts about her trip and fellow travelers. It was the last tweet of the night that would be her undoing.
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Idiotic? Yes, but she claims that was the point, a sarcastic comment about her white privilege and the race inequality that still exists in the country to which she was traveling. She turned off her phone, thought nothing more of it and fell asleep for the duration of the 11-hour second leg of the flight.
“To me it was so insane of a comment for anyone to make,” she told The New York Times Magazine in piece about her experience that’s equal parts fascinating and horrific. “I thought there was no way that anyone could possibly think it was literal.”
Except they did. As she peacefully slept, the tweet somehow went viral, far beyond the paltry 170 followers she had at the time. It traveled so fast that #HasJustineLandedYet trended worldwide while she was still in the air. A Twitter user actually went to the airport to document her arrival.
While taxiing to the gate, she unassumingly fired up her phone, and all hell broke loose. Tens of thousands of angry tweets had been sent in response to her joke, according to the Times. Her family in South Africa, longtime activists for racial equality, told her she’d “tarnished the family.” The company for which she worked, aware of her tweet and the resulting firestorm while she was still in the air, fired her. The next year was spent “crying her weight in tears” and trying to put her life back together.
If only it were an isolated case. The article recounts a number of similar instances with varying degrees of self-inflicted stupidity by those who were persecuted. The man who made an off-colored (but quite frankly, rather mild joke) to a buddy while attending a conference that was overheard and tweeted with his accompanying picture certainly didn’t deserve the backlash that followed. It’s hard to muster as much sympathy for the young woman who posted a photo of herself in a Halloween costume dressed as a Boston Marathon bombing victim.
We believe in the basic goodness of people, but also recognize the enjoyment of some in the crowd as the condemned are led to the guillotine. You’ve worked hard for your reputation, on that’s inextricably tied to your business, but even the most innocent, seemingly innocuous—and yes, ethical—of actions can be misinterpreted or deliberately misconstrued. You’ve seen that it can happen; now ensure it doesn’t.