We’ve seen it so many times. A celebrity or public figure posts a comment on Twitter, sometimes trying to be funny, sometimes not. Someone finds it offensive and says so – often another famous person (the ones with the blue ticks by their names) – then more and more people pile in. The person who made the original post deletes it and tweets a follow up, saying something like “I didn’t mean it, it’s been taken out of context, it doesn’t represent the person I am… etc etc.”
And yet, it keeps happening. Just recently we’ve had Lord Sugar tweeting that he recognised some of the Senegal football team from the beach in Marbella. After trying to defend his tweet as amusing, he later apologised.
But then he dropped himself in it again, suggesting that men should buy their wives/girlfriends some sweets to apologise for ignoring them during the World Cup. This time his tweet was posted to promote the business of one of his The Apprentice winners, which sells sweets by post. Anyway, Twitter basklash ensues – you get the picture. Although, I’m not sure Lord Sugar is all that bothered, by now. He claims the publicity for the confectionery brand has helped sales.
So, it’s conceivable he could, perhaps, have posted the latter tweet, knowing it could cause a fuss. But with the first one – he doesn’t seem to have much to gain, apart from being talked about (sometimes celebrities just need that). On that one it appears he may just have misjudged the public mood (or to be correct, some of the Twitter community’s mood, followed by sections of the media – who too often seem to need Twitter to spark off the idea for a story, but that’s another blog).
And he’s not alone. In the US Roseanne Barr recently lost her ABC show when a tweet she sent out about Valerie Jarrett, an advisor to President Obama, was widely deemed racist, even thought she claimed it had been taken the wrong way [in any event the tweet was what you might call, with bit of understatement, pretty rude].
The point is, if you are a well-known celebrity, likely with a large following on Twitter, if you tweet something that a lot of people are likely to find offensive, you’re asking for trouble.
So why do people keep doing it?
Well, as we’ve already highlighted, some people may do it purposely to cause controversy with the prime intention of promoting themselves or a product. The outcome of their actions depends on how many people are offended and if that offence turns into a boycott of them or their products. In certain circumstances, causing outrage to one sector of society can endear you to another sector.
However, in cases where people post tweets that are considered to be particularly racist, sexist or homophobic, the social environment tends to mean they will quickly lose the support of individuals or organisations who employ them or sponsor them. This is a serious issue for people employed, for example, by television companies and other well know businesses and organisations, who have a reputation to protect and can’t be seen to endorse behaviour that threatens to damage that reputation.
When famous people, who are employed/sponsored by these organisations or people who have a seemingly nicey nice, clean cut image, tweet something inappropriate and it causes an adverse reaction, it is sometimes hard to understand why they didn’t see it coming.
Generally, most of us know what is acceptable and what isn’t. Occasionally, people misjudge the way their tweets will be interpreted and it’s fair to say there is an ultra-PC section of the public who will find offence at whatever someone tweets.
There may be times when people tweet when they’ve just returned from the pub after a heavy night and aren’t quite thinking clearly. Alternatively, something they have just seen or read might have outraged them and they reacted hastily as the red mist descended. And, sometimes they’re trying too hard to be funny (Lord Sugar) or think they’re just having a ‘bit of banter’ with their friends.
The problem is, it’s Twitter. It’s quick and immediate. Once you press the post button, it’s out in the world for everyone to see. And if you’ve got thousands or millions of followers, within seconds hundreds or thousands of them might see it, and it takes only one or two to react negatively towards it and a rapid chain reaction can follow. They tweet it to likeminded people, it multiplies, other celebrities, MPs, TV presenters join in and, before you know it, the deleted tweet is replaced by an ‘I didn’t mean it’ apologetic tweet, put up in its place.
Now, if trigger-happy tweeters had to write down their tweets longhand, put them in an envelope and take them to the post box, we might not have this situation. People might consider more what they write or refrain from commenting altogether, because it’s too much effort. Or they might have time to calm down/sober up (depending on their situation) and have a different mindset.
The other thing about Twitter is that tweets hang around; forever.
If there’s a skeleton in your Twitter closet and someone is determined to find it, they can trawl back through years of your tweets to find one that may cause offence. So even if you weren’t famous or in a high profile position when you tweeted it, but you are now, you might have some explaining to do – cue another tweet.
As anybody in PR will tell you, when you’re writing something for public consumption, you must think carefully about what you are saying. When PRs draft statements for the media, they will think long and hard about what they are saying and doubtless go through several drafts before they are happy for something to be released. After all, they’re looking after their clients’ reputations.
Likewise, when PR companies help to run clients’ social media, all posts are (should be) carefully considered and written within strict guidelines that adhere to the brand values of the company.
When compiling a social media post it helps to be mindful about what else is happening in the world and consider a post within the context of the social environment. Even an innocently meant tweet can cause offence if it appears to show a lack of respect or empathy for, say, a person or community that has just suffered a major misfortune that has been widely reported in the news.
Everybody can, occasionally, say stupid things or, in the heat of the moment, say things they don’t mean. Most of the time, for most of us, even something posted on social media doesn’t cause a major hoo-hah. You might get a brief twitter backlash, but that’s where it will end.
Famous people, public figures don’t have this protection of anonymity. Neither do businesses or other organisations amongst their customers, stakeholders and their own industry (or wider) media.
So the next time you feel like sounding off about something or somebody, or you’re trying to be funny and join in with the ‘banter’, just take a moment – you might be pleased you did.