December 2013 started off as one of the best months for Justine Sacco, 30 years old and the Senior Director of Corporate Communications for a well-known media and Internet Company in New York.  She was on her way to South Africa to visit family for a well-deserved break and started the long journey to SA. After sending various tweets of her experiences during each leg of her trip, as we do, her final tweet before boarding her plane for Cape Town, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”  was also the tweet that changed her life forever… Justine was blissfully sleeping away the 11 hour flight, oblivious of the ruckus that her tweet was causing on an international basis, ranking the no. 1 worldwide trending tweet within hours of her posting it. A hashtag started trending worldwide, #Has JustineLandedYet as the whole world was aware that she was on an 11-hour flight and not able to switch on her phone. A Twitter follower even went to the airport to tweet a picture of her on arrival in SA.

In South Africa, Justine switched her phone on to a thousand messages from her best friends, sympathetic posts on Facebook from old friends and a Twitter feed that had become a horror show…  and, of course, various messages from her employer.

The trauma after such a public humiliation can only be imagined. Or can it? Justine reported that she “cried out my body weight in the first 24 hours”. She said that there is no sleep, erratic sleep and countless nightmares. Hotel staff even threatened to strike should she show up at the hotels she was booked at to stay. Even her family was affected. Being African National Congress supporters and longtime activists for racial equality, the first thing they said to Justine was that “by association, you’ve almost tarnished the family.”  She also lost her job.

Lindsey Stone posted an inappropriate photo on Facebook, where she was mocking a sign at a National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns as part of a running joke that she had with her co-worker about “disobeying signs”. Of course, the photo was taken out of context, and to the public appeared not to be a joke about a sign, but rather about the war dead.  She barely left her home for a year and was tormented by depression, insomnia and PTSD.  She also lost her job.

[The above excerpts were taken from an article “How one tweet blew up Justine Sacco’s life” in the “Fairlady, May 2015” issue.   The article is adapted from the book that was written by Jon Ronson – “So you’ve been publicly shamed”]

Social media is therefore a very big reality in our daily lives. Listen to the people around you: we are “tweeting” this, “tagging” that and “posting” this.  Emma Sadleir, Media Law Consultant with a particular focus on Social Media, and well-known to all of us, was quoted on Carte Blanche as saying: “I think that the facelessness of cyberspace gives people ‘license’ to say things they would never say in the real world.” Emma Sadleir aims to do a lot of work with schools and universities to educate them on “the responsible use of social media” and in essence, that needs to be the employer’s main undertaking – to clarify: What role does Social Media play in my business and how will my business use social media responsibly?

And of course, we also have to remember the advantages of Social Media! How many lost people/animals have been found as a result of live ‘tweeting’, how many of us rely on loadshedding updates via tweets, traffic and accident updates, live soccer/rugby/tennis scores.  An employer cannot simply ignore the advantages either!
– Recruitment via social media can be very effective
– Launching new products
– Regulatory updates and/or news and views (I follow @INSETA for reminders on deadlines!)
– Posting pictures of your Corporate Social Responsibility events
– Posting positive feedback from customers/clients
– Free publicity on training and/or achievements of awards

However, for a company to minimise its risks you have to have a Social Media policy in place. In addition, you have to talk about Social Media – do not hesitate to talk about Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn etc. in meetings, conversations and/or strategy sessions and make it absolutely clear as to what your employees can/can’t do in terms of Social Media in the workplace. Every employee remains a brand advocate of your business. Whether you (or they) like it or not.