Justine Sacco: Twitter Devil Deserves Some

There's no defending her outrageous tweet. But there are reasons why she could have been so blind

No one knows what IAC publicist Justine Sacco was thinking when she tweeted Friday, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” — maybe not even she herself.

And yet not only do I unexpectedly find myself feeling sorry for her, but actually identifying with her a little bit.

That said, let’s get the requisite disclaimers out of the way first. What she tweeted was offensive, in my opinion, and because of the nature of the job she occupied, she deserved to be fired by IAC, regardless of her apology.

But as vile as the sentiment she expressed was, there are some potential extenuating circumstances here that don’t excuse her behavior but might mitigate her misdeed somewhat.

Repugnant as her joke was, there is a difference between outright hate speech and even the most ill-advised attempt at humor. It is within the realm of reason that Sacco’s tweet didn’t flow directly from some deep reservoir of prejudice, like the recently displayed homophobia of “Duck Dynasty’s” Phil Robertson did.

A distinction without a difference, you might counter. But Twitter is a component of a broader culture of entertainment in this country where comedians routinely traffic in humor that plays on politically incorrect stereotypes about race, religions and other categorizations.

What Sacco said really isn’t all that different than a joke someone like Sarah Silverman tweets or utters in a stand-up routine. The context of professional comedy permits them to be that transgressive, a nuance lost on some.

You know the type; every office has at least one person who casually make the kind of cringe-inducing crack that betrays a tin ear to the subtleties of social norms. Sacco may be an idiot but she’s not evil, and given how we grant comedians the ability to cross that line, her confusion is not entirely incomprehensible.

Another type to consider: The person who feels they have license to engage in gallows humor about their own people because, well, it’s their own people. Sacco hailed from South Africa and may have forgotten that kind of crack doesn’t fly beyond closed doors.

That said, anyone who works in corporate communications and doesn’t have enough sense to steer clear of that kind of humor needs to find a new line of work.

But that’s what made this story so delicious in the first place, right? How can someone whose job is to protect the value of their employer by saying all the right things blurt out something so monumentally stupid?

It’s time to be blunt about the nature of corporate PR. While some of the smartest people I have ever worked with hail from its ranks, some bulbs burn a lot brighter than others, to put it charitably.

And believe it or not, that’s not a knock on those publicists. That broadside is directed at the companies with dysfunctional corporate cultures in which the people in these crucial posts are some combination of stenographer/cheerleader/babysitter instead of the savvy strategists required to do the job correctly. These people are treated like puppets by executives who don’t understand who they really need to hire because they narcissistically believe they can handle it all themselves.

I didn’t know Sacco well enough to know what type of publicist she was, but I do know that type exists. And we can call her a moron based on a Twitter history filled with inappropriate comments — but isn’t IAC the bigger dolt, because no one in the company flagged her previous tweets to superiors as a sign that they had a timebomb ticking in their midst? Maybe she should have never had that job in the first place.

But Sacco’s flack status almost feels besides the point in some respect. She’s just another seat at this Algonquin round table of unlimited circumference we call Twitter, where media types of all stripes engage in this nonstop game of verbal oneupmanship in an effort to make ourselves heard above the din. Flacks are no exception to this virtual cocktail party because social media is the place to influence the influencers. And instead of simply using social media to spit out press releases, they engage in our raucous conversation in an effort to charm and disarm. And part of that is cracking the kind of provocative jokes that resonate on Twitter.

However, a smart publicist knows the line between being a firecracker and a firestarter. Sacco did not.

But am I any smarter than she is? I’ll confess to several instances this past year where I tweeted comments I regretted. And yet, it’s those times when you manage to come close to crossing the line that draw attention on Twitter. I can’t shake the fear that one day I will look down and see that line far behind me given the haste and humor with which you have to conduct yourself to make your mark.

Whether it’s stress or anger or even medication, we’ve all had moments where we aren’t 100% of sound mind. And we’ve all been there at the same time as we’ve had a gadget in our pockets that allows us to essentially broadcast to the entire world a sentence or two that, if poorly chosen, can destroy our reputations in a matter of seconds.  There but for the grace of a Buzzfeed retweet go I.

At a time of year when the hamster wheel we call our careers slows a tick or two, consider that maybe we are all Justine Sacco. Or at least 140 characters away from being her at any given time.

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