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Thursday 1 May 2014

How to avoid 'doing a Justine'

Just before Christmas 2013 Justine Sacco, a PR executive, lost her job because of an offensive tweet. To see the full story click here:

This story is important because it demonstrates not only the power of modern social media to affect individual lives but also the inherent risks involved for any activity, including partnership and collaborative working, that uses diverse and multiple communication pathways, be these virtual or indeed face-to-face.

The key lessons from Justine's story 

Specifically, the key lessons we can take from this story are:

  • Information travelling through and between multiple communication pathways will not only travel quickly but also gain increasing power and influence over people's thinking and actions. This is especially the case when the information is damaging or offensive.
  • As it travels through the communication pathways the offensiveness of information is not only magnified in power but also focused back upon its source; it is associated with and projected tenfold onto the person who provided it, so causing him/her damage of various kinds (for example, reputational, professional, financial, etc.).
  • Where there is no significant personal contact or relationship between those who are the source of the problematic information and those receiving and passing it on a 'game-playing' mentality will quickly form within the communication pathways; people will have fun finding creative ways to ridicule those who communicated the original message. In the above example a game of 'Has Justine Landed Yet?' was quickly initiated and thousands of people enthusiastically began to play.
  • Once the original damaging information has been extensively communicated, shared and explored the information and communication pathways will become proactive; people will keep digging in the same direction for new examples of damaging and/or offensive information. And you can trust that they will eventually find them.
  • One person's idea of humour can be another person's offence. (This is at the core of Justine's story.)  
  • The source of the offensive information is judged and summarily punished on the basis of an ever-growing informal grapevine of negative gossip.
  • When the damage has been done, traditional ritualistic apologies are ineffective.
  • Eventually, after the damaging or offensive information has been widely communicated and its source extensively ridiculed, after the game has played itself out, some positive aspects of the situation will be identified and acted upon.

The above lessons have obvious significance for those involved in collaborative working, which relies on effective communication with and between multiple players who have diverse connections and wide-ranging communication pathways. If bad news travels fast within the informal grapevine of a single organisation think how quickly and widely it will travel through multiple networked organisations, how powerful and influential it will become, how damaging.

How to avoid 'doing a Justine' 

The way to avoid the above problems, the way to avoid 'doing a Justine', are implied within the hard learnt lessons themselves, and they can be summed up as follows:

  • Help people to get to know something of the real person. Build personal relationships and meaningful connections with the people you are communicating and collaborating with. This is perhaps difficult to do effectively or safely through social media, but steps towards achieving it can be taken even here. You need to do your best to align everything you say and write, including passing comments, quick tweets and  Facebook posts, with your personal beliefs and values. Put more simply, ask yourself what you are passionate about, what you really care about, and always align your communication with it. People will then begin to know you and trust what you stand for. They will also be more willing to forgive the occasional slip-up you may make (something we are all guilty of from time to time). 
  • Do not rely on ritualistic apologies. If you are going to apologise do so with a meaningful act that will reverberate through the communication pathways, encouraging positive rather than negative gossip. For example, perhaps Justine could have set up a website for donations to an Aids charity, posted her apology on it and started donating money herself. What actually happened was that someone else did this, so Justine lost that particular opportunity. (There were, however, some concerns expressed about the authenticity of the website that was set up - such is life on the web!)  
  • The above leads to this next point: if the worst happens remember that somewhere down the line there will be some positive consequences. Try to identify what these positive consequences will be and do your best to make them happen before anyone else does. This will help you rebuild your credibility as quickly as  possible.
  • Avoid jokes of any kind until you know your network and collaborators. Always avoid obviously offensive jokes; Justine's experience makes the importance of this self evident. Remember that there is a difference between being pleasantly informal and friendly and trying to gain attention and popularity through being humorous. The latter is seldom effective, and if it is the effects are not long lasting.
  • Accept that the boundaries between formal and informal and public and private worlds are becoming increasingly blurred. Remember that all of us are potentially on show all of the time. Not a nice thought perhaps, but more and more of a reality none-the-less. Bring this thought to the front of your mind as you say or write that comment, make that telephone call, post that tweet or Facebook comment.
  • Be honest and open. If there are more skeletons in the cupboard shake them out in front of people before you hear the death rattle of someone else discovering them. Demonstrated honesty will slow down the negative gossip about you, quicken the consequences of additional bad news (which means they will be over with that much sooner than otherwise), and provide a small but firm platform of positivity upon which you can start to rebuild your reputation and relationships.       

A final thought 

Most of the above can be summed up by the following phrase:

 'Always think carefully before you say or write anything.' 

But no one is capable of this, not all the time; we are not robots. So if 'doing a Justine' cannot be avoided one other thing is needed: forgiveness.

For more about collaboration go to: Sleeping-with-the-Enemy-Achieving-Collaborative-Success-2nd-Edition

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