Do you have a Twitter account? If so, you too are a public figure.
On Tuesday, ABC
cancelled the successful reboot of “Roseanne” after Roseanne Barr sent a racist tweet about Valerie Jarrett, a former adviser in Barack Obama’s White House. Barr apologized, but the damage was done. Several members of her cast and ABC executives denounced Barr’s tweets. “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show,” Channing Dungey, president of ABC Entertainment, who is black, said in a statement. ICM Partners talent agency also dropped Barr.
The swiftness of ABC’s response is a testament to diversity in the C-suite and the speed with which news travels on social media, says Aram Sinnreich, professor of communications at the American University, Washington, D.C. “It helps that there’s an African-American woman calling the shots. It also reflects that, in the Trump age, the news cycle has accelerated so quickly that there’s a vanishingly small window for commercial entities to get out in front of these damaging public relations incidents. The ability to bury these kinds of stories has diminished to almost zero.”
The political climate is putting all employers on high alert when it comes to the words and behavior of their employees, Sinnreich says. “We’re understood to be private citizens, but when someone is the public face of a public corporation, that corporation should and must be held accountable for the actions of that individual,” he added. “Until the president is held accountable for the outrageous volume of hate speech that he generates, proxies are going to continue to come under the gun.” (President Trump has made incendiary remarks about Mexicans, Haitians and Nigerians.)
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Many people are plugged into the news cycle all day long. One in five employers think staff is productive fewer than five hours a day, with most citing smartphone use as the culprit, a 2016 CareerBuilder report of hiring managers found. That does not, however, mean you should share all your opinions on social media. The First Amendment protects free speech, but it may not protect your job if you do or say anything that is contrary to the company’s values, even if it’s a joke. In employment-at-will states, employees without a contract can be fired without cause.
“Twitter is today’s PR Newswire,” says Donna Francavilla, a communications specialist in Birmingham, Ala. “We think we’re talking to our followers and we think they’re all loyal to us and, if we issue an opinion, they’ll agree.” That’s not the case, she said. “It never used to be that way. Social media used to be just you and your friends. But we’re now using this new megaphone to express our ideas to a much larger audience.” Anyone with a public Twitter account is a de facto public figure, she added. “We have to be mindful of every word we speak and everything we write.”
There have been some infamous cases. In December 2013, Justine Sacco, a PR executive for InterActiveCorp,
which runs dating websites Match.com and OkCupid, was fired after tweeting offensive comments about AIDS in Africa, before stepping on a plane to go there. Her tweet went viral while she was on the long-distance flight. IAC said at the time: “The offensive comment doesn’t reflect the views and values of IAC.” Sacco later apologized “for being insensitive to this crisis,” and later said the tweet was intended to be satirical. She left IAC in January 2014 and returned in January 2018 as vice president of communications at Match Group.
Anthony Weiner, the former Democratic congressman for New York, last year began a 21-month prison sentence for sexting with a minor. But he first resigned in June 2011 after sending a sexually explicit photo of himself to a college student over Twitter. At first, Weiner claimed that his account was hacked. While he lost his $174,000-a-year job — the standard salary for members of the House and the Senate — he walked away with the equivalent of around $1.2 million in retirement benefits after just a dozen years in office. He later expressed remorse: “These destructive impulses brought great devastation to family and friends, and destroyed my life’s dream of public service,” he said.
Even posting photographs or retweeting someone else’s tweet can be enough to get fired. Despite repeated warnings, people still get fired for sending an inappropriate photo or tweet. The problem with sites like Twitter and Instagram is that immediacy and informality are also social media’s greatest dangers, experts say. And in many cases, there’s no turning back once you hit “send” and there are plenty of reasons not to. Case in point: Five workers on a dam in Oroville, Calif., were fired earlier this year for taking photos of the dam and posting them on Instagram despite a strict no social media and no photos policy at the site.
For corporate America, the power of Twitter
can work both ways. In February, Kylie Jenner, start of E!’s “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” and a fashion empire mogul in her own right, tweeted that she was over Snapchat
“Sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me… ugh this is so sad,” Jenner tweeted to her 25.5 million Twitter followers. It was liked 374,555 times. Jenner, regarded by her fans as an arbiter of what’s not and what’s not, heard. Snapchat stock dropped 6% or $1.3 billion, also in part over its decision to redesign its interface. Jenner later tweeted, “still love you tho snap … my first love.”
In fairness to American workers, it’s a double-edged sword: They’re often times encouraged to tweet and maintain an active social media presence. And employees, particularly those who are in the public eye, are often judged by how many followers they have on Twitter when they apply for jobs. The role social media plays in workers’ lives is “not always clear-cut,” the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, D.C., found. Companies, in the meantime, must remind employees to state that their opinions do not reflect that of their company. But when it comes to crossing a line — whether it’s racism, homophobia or sexism — such caveats may not enough.
“This is not censorship,” Sinnreich says. “It’s about affiliation and the media’s role as amplifiers for political ideology. This story will be over in another 24 hours, but these stories will keep happening.”