Ralph Northam and Alexi McCammond are two people at the center of similar stories that turned out very differently.
Northam, the Virginia governor, was nearly forced from office two years ago after a photo from a 1984 medical school yearbook appeared on social media that showed him allegedly dressed in black face and standing next to a person in a Ku Klux Klan costume. Northam, who has questioned whether it was him in the photo, was widely vilified and called upon to resign. He persevered, though, holding numerous listening sessions with Black leaders and pledging to be a leader in the fight for racial equality.
And he did exactly that, becoming, by most accounts, one of the most progressive governors in the country in advancing voting rights and involving people of color in state government decision-making.
McCammond didn’t get a second chance. Earlier this year, the wunderkind incoming editor of Teen Vogue resigned before her first day on the job over racist tweets she had posted a decade earlier. McCammond, who had informed her employer of the controversial tweets before accepting the position, apologized profusely and asserted that she had changed. Nevertheless, Condé Nast succumbed to pressure from social media, advertisers, and Teen Vogue staffers and agreed it was best to part ways with McCammond, a person few barely knew
But I didn’t mean to offend
These stories are worth recalling as we venture back to a workplace in which digital communications will filter the way others see us to an unprecedented degree. In a climate of information overload and continuous partial attention, a single tweet, Facebook post, or even offhanded remark in a private chat can come back to haunt us in ways that damage careers and relationships. And it can happen to anybody.
In the physical world, our relationships are few and deep. In the digital world, they’re wide and shallow. Each day we are exposed to people through digital channels whom we would never meet in the real world. Social media has the unfortunate effect of flattening our personalities, reducing us to what can fit in a two-line profile and a two-sentence message.
At the same time, it has made it one-button simple to share whatever we happen to be thinking, even if we weren’t thinking much at all. It’s tempting to think of these channels as soapboxes, but opinions voiced in a town square vanish in the wind. Digital records are permanent, searchable, and oh-so-easy to misinterpret.
Having a low profile is no protection. Justine Sacco had just 170 followers when she tweeted shortly before boarding a plane from London to Cape Town, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
The tweet was a poor attempt at a joke by Sacco, whom no one had ever accused of being racist, but many people didn’t take it that way. By the time she landed 11 hours later Twitter was blowing up with thousands of angry posts. Sacco was fired a day later before even returning home from her business trip.
Staying on message
My point is not to pass judgment on social media, Twitter gaffes, or the ways people react to them. They are what they are. But in the current polarized political environment in the US and many other countries, it’s worth remembering how many ways we now have to shoot ourselves in the foot.
In an environment of continual distraction and constant communication, we have little time to understand in any depth who people are or what their motivations may be for saying what they say. It’s easier to fall back on stereotypes. That’s an environment that’s ripe for one poorly worded message or offhand comment to define who we are to many others.
Northam was able to push through the blowback from a 35-year-old mistake because he was already in office. McCammond had no such luxury. Neither do most people who work for others. Employers tend to view such incidents through pragmatic lenses. They are less concerned about what was said than what the potential is for damage to their image. Social media policies remind people that they are brand ambassadors both on and off the job. What we say reflects on who we work for, and anonymity is nearly impossible to achieve when so much about us is already online.
Once upon a time, I counseled companies on the strategic use of social media back in the days when Twitter was a novelty. My advice then was to stay positive, avoid sensitive issues, and never write anything in a tweet, Facebook post, or even an email message that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of The New York Times.
That advice is even more relevant today.
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