Why Smart People and Popular Brands Get Publicly Shamed on Social Media (and How to Avoid It)

Written by Laura Roeder

On April 28, 2015

Think you’re safe from being publicly shamed for a social media faux pas?

Tell that to Justine Sacco, whose tweet to only 170 followers launched a firestorm that derailed her career and made her an international pariah.

She’s not an outlier, either. From Trevor Noah to Britt McHenry, the social media shame machine is always on the lookout for fresh meat – anyone who’s said or done something distasteful, and thereby deserves to be locked up in the village stocks where they can be publicly judged and ridiculed.

shamed on social media

It’s one of every social marketer’s worst nightmares, especially because every new victim of the shame machine has one major thing in common:

They never saw it coming.

Whether they’re celebrities who are used to being in the public eye or just everyday people like Sacco, the common denominator is that they don’t think it could happen to them – and they pay for it dearly, typically with their jobs and their dignity.

So how do you avoid being caught by the shame machine? What do its victims do wrong, and how can you act differently to make sure it doesn’t happen to you?

Here’s what you have to remember.

There’s no such thing as personal privacy

There’s no reasonable expectation of privacy on the Internet.


(At all.)

Just because you keep things 100% professional on your business’s social accounts does not mean you’re free to post whatever you want on your personal ones. People are going to find you, and there’s nothing you can do about that.

Even if your personal profiles are on lockdown – your tweets are protected, your Facebook profile is visible only to friends – the things you say and share can still be screencapped and blasted all over the Internet before you even know it. No matter how much you want to trust that your cousin or your high school pals or your D&D club will respect your privacy and not share privileged status updates with the world, you’re better off assuming that if you say it online, it’s fair game – to anyone.

Protected Tweets Screen

Hiding your personal updates from people you don’t know doesn’t mean they’ll never get out.

With that in mind…

If a joke or a comment needs context, just don’t make it

They say that a joke isn’t funny when you have to explain it, and there’s no place where that’s more true than on social media.

Take Sacco, for example, whose infamous, apparently-racist Twitter joke was meant as satire. Because Twitter is more or less designed to take things out of context, the tongue-in-cheek comment she intended to be seen only by her friends was taken at face value by millions of strangers in just a few hours.

Or Ethan Czahor, who earlier this year was forced to resign from Jeb Bush’s political campaign when offensive tweets from his past began circulating. Czahor claims they were exercises in joke-writing dating back to his days studying improv, but without that context, they come off as straight-faced and offensive. (Not that the “it was just a joke” excuse is a Get Out of Jail Free card anyway – but more on that later.)

Ethan Czahor Offensive Tweet

This is actually one of the least offensive of Czahor’s tweets, which he couldn’t delete before they were screencapped and shared en masse.
Source: Buzzfeed

If you’re on the fence about sharing a particular update with people who know you, and who you’re sure will understand you mean no offense, ask yourself – what would someone who doesn’t know you think? With no context, no background, and no knowledge of who you are or what you believe, what’s the worst they could assume? (Hint: If you’re asking yourself this question, it’s probably a good indicator that what you’re thinking of posting is riskier than it’s worth.)

You don’t get a free pass on stuff from the distant past, either. The dicey tweets that lost Czahor his job in politics dated back five years or more. Same with comedian Trevor Noah, who learned that offensive jokes he’d tested out on Twitter years ago left him vulnerable to criticism today. Your digital footprint goes back a while, so if you’re a public figure – or you expect to become one – you should probably give it a look.

Check the attitude

No way around it – the Internet can be a pretty snarky place. Heck, the way it encourages snap judgements and pithy remarks is one of the reasons social shaming is such a phenomenon.

It’s your job to not give in to that temptation.

Some brands, like DiGiorno and Denny’s, have built their social reputations on oddball humor, snarkiness, and gentle jabs – but it’s difficult to pull off, and can go disastrously when the jokes don’t land. (There’s a reason DiGiorno appears again later in this post as an example of what not to do.)

DiGiorno Twitter Burn

DiGiorno’s critical attitude toward delivery is integral toward its brand identity – a tweet like this is something they’re uniquely suited to get away with.

When you’re using social professionally, you have to learn to put a cork in some of your beautiful zingers. Does that mean you can’t have fun? Of course not – Edgar’s Twitter profile certainly isn’t serious all the time. But if you don’t maintain a consistent filter, you can easily cross the line between keeping it light and being unprofessional.

For example, using your professional profile to criticize other companies can cast you in a severely negative light. If you went to dinner with a prospective client, you would probably try not to complain, or badmouth other businesses – so why would you do that on social media, where your audience is significantly larger? If you would feel embarrassed saying something out loud to a room full of strangers you want to impress, you probably shouldn’t say it on social, no matter how much you may believe it.

Hashtag surf with caution

Unfortunately, even a good-natured update can go horribly wrong – so you have to stay alert.

We said we’d come back to DiGiorno, didn’t we? Their official profile typically excels at offering pizza-themed commentary on whatever topic Twitter users are posting about, whether it’s March Madness or “The Sound of Music.” In late 2014, though, the company bit off more than it could chew by accidentally bringing pizza jokes to the table for a conversation about domestic violence.

The tweet was quickly deleted, and the company’s mea culpa was swift and sincere – but it was still an embarrassing error. Entenmann’s made the same mistake just a few years prior when they tweeted using the trending hashtag #NotGuilty, not realizing that they’d joined a conversation about the verdict in a murder trial.

Entenmann's Twitter Fail

This isn’t what you want your Google search results to look like.

With more than 5700 tweets being posted every second, the pressure to act quickly or get left behind can feel overwhelming – but that’s also when mistakes like these happen, and the brands responsible for them are deservedly taken to task.

If you’re going to join a conversation on social media, get the facts first. It takes all of 10 seconds to click on a hashtag and see how it’s being used – and that’s a lot easier to handle than the potential fallout if you use one inappropriately.

Reduce your risk of mistakes

No matter how careful you want to be, though, there’s a big difference between knowing what to do and actually doing it – and good intentions alone won’t keep you safe if you get caught up in the social shame machine.

If you want to avoid mistakes on social, you need to have fewer balls in the air.

Juggling gets harder the more balls you’re using, and social media is no different. The more work you pile on for yourself, the more you have to keep track of, and the likelier you are to start making mistakes and letting balls hit the floor.

Juggling the Planets

Whether juggling social media duties or the planets, professionals tend to make things look easier than they are.

One of the easiest ways to avoid the type of task overload that leads to mistakes like these is to write and schedule updates ahead of time – if it doesn’t need to be posted live, then don’t post it live.

The average person makes it up as they go along on social media – they think of something they’d like to share, and they post it on Facebook or Twitter right then and there. And because that’s how you’ve learned to use social networks as an individual, it’s tempting to want to use them that way in a professional capacity, too.

But think of this: when a politician gives a speech, did they plan everything they wanted to say and write it out ahead of time, or do they just take the podium and wing it? When someone has to give a presentation to their boss, do they prepare notes in advance, or do they just make it up as they go along?

Everything you do in your professional life is planned, because winging it leads to mistakes. And as you’ve seen, mistakes on social media make you a target.

Imagine your social media updates as falling into one of two categories – the things you’re going to post no matter what, and the things you can’t predict (like replies, or tweets that include a trending hashtag).

Palm Reading Diagram

You can’t predict everything you’ll want to post on social – but you can predict a lot.

The first category is things that you can plan, write, and schedule ahead of time – things like blog links, tips, quotes, jokes – whatever it is that you usually have to take time out of your day to post. By scheduling those updates in advance, you free up all the time they would normally take out of your daily schedule.

All that spare time means your updates from the second category – the unpredictable, live posts – are going to be better. You have more time to spend writing them, and more time to engage live with your followers and in trending conversations. You’ve essentially cut your daily social workload in half (at least), so you have way fewer balls in the air and are a lot less likely to make mistakes.

And if you DO make a mistake?

Everybody screws up sometimes – the good news is, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world.

The best thing you can do to avoid being eaten alive by the social shame machine? Own up to it and try to move on.

That example from before, about DiGiorno’s poorly-chosen hashtag? They deleted the tweet immediately (obviously a good idea), but then went on to personally apologize to everyone who’d been offended. They didn’t skirt the issue, either – they admitted that they goofed, and issued heartfelt apologies.

Compare that to Progressive, who infamously dealt with their own social media critics by issuing uniform, tone-deaf auto-replies. Guess how that went.

When you try to excuse what you did wrong, pretend it never happened, or issue insincere apologies, you inevitably do more harm than good – best to just own your mistake and keep moving forward. It might not keep you out of the shame machine entirely, but it can stop a situation from getting out of hand before you become another cautionary tale.

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