Courting Social Controversy: #HasJustineLandedYet?

Like most of the twitterverse, I read Justine Sacco’s tweet on her trip to Africa and cringed.

It’s offensive.

It’s not even remotely funny.

When I then read she held an executive position of trust within a public relations firm, and had years of experience in the field: the penny dropped.

You see, I’m not buying the ‘accidental’ tweet defence in the Justine Sacco debacle.

From the teeth of Londoner’s; to dreams about having sex with an autistic person; to stating “I can’t be fired for things I say while intoxicated right?”; to “I like animals, but when it’s this cold out I’ll skin one myself for the fur”: it appears to me that Justine consciously and repeatedly tweeted content that could reasonably be expected to offend.

This isn’t a case of an accidental lapse in judgement … four times over.

Justine either meant for her tweets to cause a controversy or she really does have some objectionable personal views.

Either way; she got the attention she sought.

Courting Controversy on Social Media

As Justine has discovered; being controversial on social media isn’t a formula to achieving online success.

There are very few personalities who have successfully built a cult-like following from being deliberately controversial online – the most notable of which is Perez Hilton who successfully built an empire on being mean to celebrities on his blog. Profiteering from what is essentially cyber bullying, he has since admitted:

“I feel like it spiraled out of control. It got progressively meaner and bitchier,’ [he] said of his former online persona …”  Perez Hilton, LA Times 2013

Locally Australian shock jock Kyle Sandilands has built himself a brand via his self-styled controversial persona, while remaining profitable- yet high risk, for his employers. Having been sacked and suspended from various broadcasting roles for his comments throughout his career, he is one of the very few deliberately controversial public personalities who has been able to weather the public (advertiser and shareholder) backlash without a wholesale persona makeover.

What Perez and Kyle have in common are pre-existing platforms that have been built outside of their controversies. Their audience, while grown on their controversial persona’s, aren’t necessarily dependent on continual drama – but rather a consistent stream of content that is authentic to their brand, that offends some and humors others.

In this way, they are insulated from the fallout of ‘going-too-far’ or pulling stunts that aren’t digestible – even by their audience’s standards.

Fallout vs Strategy: Crisis Communications during Controversy

In a crisis communications context there is a big difference between managing the fallout from Kyle’s escapades, for example, vs the situation Justine now finds herself in.

As a public relations strategy, deliberately courting controversy isn’t something I’ve ever seen recommended.

The fallout from Kyle’s misadventures can be managed within a framework of traditional corporate and public affairs incident or crisis management. Kyle has rules of engagement and his employer has a vested interest in keeping him bending those rules to the margins. It’s an unbalanced synergy, but while it works for both parties, it’s profitable. When it doesn’t work, Kyle is reprimanded, suspended or sacked. He’s savvy enough to know how the game is played.

In Justine’s case; a lack of corporate cover leaves her individually exposed. The easiest (and best option) in her employer’s case was to remove her from their brand equation – quickly. Their swift action in this regard restores confidence in a brand guilty by association for all the wrong reasons. It also demonstrates exceptional business acuity – for what client would want her now managing their accounts? The reality is, as soon as her tweet went viral, her employment became untenable.

There is a big lesson here for all employers around the delineation between vicarious liability, employee’s pseudo-private social channels and broader brand management. While identifying herself as an employee of a particular company, the fact she tweeted a range of objectionable content demonstrates either a lack of social policy (or policy enforcement) or employee social stream visibility. Both these social scenarios are easily managed cost effectively before a crisis unfolds.

In an age where online influence often results in offline prosperity, has the attraction of ‘5 minutes of fame’ – no matter what the cost or fallout – become the latest psychosis in a celebrity infused cyber culture?

Infamy, as Justine will find out – has a memory as long as Google’s.