Sunday, December 22, 2013

What Your Brand Can Learn from Justine Sacco and “Twas the Night Before Christmas”

The great irony of social media--if you strive to develop content and build reputation as I do--is this:  The stuff you take time to do right and hope will go viral rarely does, and the things you do not think much about sometimes ends up reaching a very wide audience.

I have spent around 20 hours writing a blog post that will launch tomorrow. Once it posts, I will get a couple thousand readers and maybe 100 retweets. That's a nice reward for my effort. (I appreciate every comment and share my blog receives, and I do my best to acknowledge most of the people who take the time to do so.)

But this week I made two tweets about the Justine Sacco affair that will be seen by 1,000,000% more people than my blog post. One appeared on Mashable and the other on Buzzfeed. Combined, these two tweets took me perhaps 90 seconds to compose. (And, in retrospect, I'm mildly embarrassed of my support for the Gogo tweet, which exploited someone's misfortune, but just as Justine cannot take back her tweet, neither can I take back mine.)

I'd suggest it is frustrating to have your best work get modest attention while offhand tweets get more, but that is human nature and it is nothing new--not even to the digital and social era. Just last week, I heard Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit From St. Nicholas" read in the 175-year-old chapel built on land Moore donated. Moore spent two decades hiding his authorship of the poem following its publication in 1823. The work, now known as "Twas the Night Before Christmas," embarrassed Moore. He was a professor who published scholarly works, and he did not wish to be associated with the children's story. But, neither Moore in the 19th century nor Justine Sacco or me in the 21st century can control the narrative once our work enters the public's awareness.

This is a good reminder to everyone who bemoaned that Justine Sacco faced a backlash that hurt her reputation and cost her her job: once we publish something, we lose control. We cannot manage how people use it and we certainly cannot control how people perceive it. Each of us has a right to say what we want, but everyone else has a right to judge and react to it. And say what you want about the "mob mentality" of social media, but it is no different in the real world than on Twitter--once someone engages people's emotions, be it anger or joy, the right brain takes over. Once that happens, the left brain's logic and restraint go out the window. Social doesn't change this, it just brings more scale to it.

To me, there is irony in seeing people who have used social media to build their reputations and careers now gripe at how social media can harm someone's reputation and career. As we strive for "viral" impact of a positive sort, why would we be surprised or disturbed when it happens in reverse? If we are going to believe content that positively engages emotions or logic can create benefits for people and brands, then by very definition, don't we also have to believe that content that engages negative emotions or logic can do the same in reverse?

The reputation train goes in both directions. We don't control the train--we can only influence its direction by being aware and vigilant of how people may react to our public communications.

Post carefully!


Chelsea said...

Interesting POV. Early in my career I was urged to think of every public communication that wasn't protected by a privacy wall with what was called the "Wall Street Journal" test. The theory went that if I envisioned whatever I was considering posting online on the front of WSJ I would make better decisions about this idea of unleashing the content to the public for translation. It was certainly an effective antidote in a professional sense - only once or twice have I ever had a well-meaning professional post completely backfire.

The lines get blurry when it comes to "personal but public" accounts, such as Ms. Sacco's Twitter feed. As a general rule I'm probably overly conscious due to my paranoia that something could be misconstrued to mean something I didn't intend online. What results is a somewhat watered down, self-censored stream of who I appear to be that's publicly viewable. Benign, harmless posts of puppies, babies, or reshares of existing points-of-view for the most part. The good news is, if anything I should post on my "personal but public" social feed ends up on the WSJ, I won't have major concerns about it. On the converse, the points of view I have on situations that could probably add value to the conversation end up hidden behind a privacy wall, in a safe place where they are less likely to be misused. To have a point of view, and to truly be a Thought Leader of any kind, you have to balance taking calculated risks about what could be inferred from one of your posts with adding valuable perspective. Clearly Ms. Sacco wasn't doing any of the above. However, professionals in the space weighing in on her poor taste could advance the online marketing and brand professions overall.

Anyways, thanks for this blog post! To me, it's exactly the kind of post that helps move online marketing and world of mouth marketing forward in light of a bad decision by a pro like Sacco. Know that some of us really value your Thought Leadership and POV and while you might occasionally change your mind after more details flood in, those of us wanting to learn from you and the "best in the industry" appreciate your calculated risk :)

Tom Larsen said...

It is just like Miley Cyrus or Lindsay Lohan, for some reason people are wanting to see what they are doing (not me!). They push their stupid video's virally, while a more thought provoking author or speaker goes unnoticed.

It is crazy it happens but it does all the time.

Augie Ray said...

Chelsea, thanks for the thoughtful comment! You really point out that this is a continuum that runs from safe but banal to edgy but risky. Everyone has to choose their path, but I get frustrated (as probably shows in this post) with the folks who think they can exploit social to build their careers and then act shocked, shocked!, to see careers destroyed by careless posts.

I fall somewhere in the middle of the continuum. I take risks that are professional in nature on Twitter. On Facebook, I will be much more political (and arguably more "real") when I limit the posts to "friends."

I will say that Sacco's Twitter feed was not really "personal but social." Her bio started "CorpComms at IAC." If she wanted to be the next Louis CK, I'd argue she should not have associated her account at all with IAC. In fact, if she really wanted to be edgy AND really wanted to protect her career, she should have dreamed up a pseudonym. The fact is that our words have ramifications, and the more senior and visible one is within their employer, the greater the ramifications.

Thanks for the dialog!

Augie Ray said...

Tom, if you can think of a way my blog posts could go as viral as Miley Cyrus' twerking, I'm all ears. (And no, I won't post a twerking video!) :)