We live in an age where almost any information, if desired, is just a few key strokes away. Data is stored, often in the cloud, and easily retrieved. This can be life-enriching and help us to work and communicate more effectively, but the same technology can also cause serious damage to reputations when ill-advised comments or actions resurface on social media.
Younger generations—so-called digital natives—know this better than anyone, which makes me wonder if the Covington Catholic high school students knew what they were doing when they were filmed mocking a Native American man, Nathan Phillips, who also happens to be a Vietnam War veteran, last week.
Despite attempts by the right-wing media to discredit the footage and diffuse the story, the family of one student—Nick Sandmann, the individual involved in the standoff with Phillips—hired a PR firm in an attempt to minimize the damage. They did this because this footage could have serious repercussions, not only in the short term but for the rest of his life.
There are several high-profile examples of how something as seemingly insignificant as a tweet can return from the dead and potentially destroy a career. Take Kevin Hart, who in December stepped down from hosting the Oscars after homophobic tweets he posted a decade ago resurfaced. The tweets, between 2009 and 2011, included derogatory language about LGBTQ people and sexuality.
Shortly after those tweets re-emerged, Hart tweeted that he would not be hosting this year’s event because he did not want to be a “distraction” on a night that should be celebrated by so many amazing talented artists. He said that he sincerely apologized to the LGBTQ community for his “insensitive words from my past.”
In the UK, Josh Rivers, the then-newly appointed editor of Gay Times, was sacked in 2017 for tweeting a series of anti-Semitic and misogynistic comments, as well as using Twitter to attack gay people, homeless people and disabled children. He had been in the post for just one month.
In an interview with Buzzfeed, which broke the news about dozens of offensive tweets while it was researching for an interview with Rivers, he defended himself by saying that his “political awakening” had been only in the past couple of years.
The lesson for all of us, but especially high-profile people in business, politics or entertainment, is clear: Be ultra-cautious about social media, whether you’re a youngster or an aspiring CEO, world leader or stadium-filling comedian.
The lesson for all of us, but especially high-profile people in business, politics or entertainment, is clear: Be ultra-cautious about social media, whether you’re a youngster or an aspiring CEO, world leader or stadium-filling comedian. You’re not even safe offline; thanks to smartphones, your mistake could be captured and broadcast globally within seconds. It’s a lesson that I’ve noticed an increasing number of people are picking up on.
I work for loads of global leaders and chief executives in my day job, and though they’re incredibly polite and engaging in real life, they just don’t discuss anything electronically. If I send them a question that could be awkward, the phone will ring. It’s become routine, because I think everyone’s now aware that years later, if there’s a dispute, once the emails are dragged up, you could well look at them and think, “Why the hell did even I write that?”
The old rule is not tweeting anything you wouldn’t be happy to see on a billboard. In the UK, senior politicians were reminded of this maxim (and the benefit of hindsight) after some of their old tweets about Brexit were emblazoned on street billboards by anti-Brexit campaign group Led by Donkeys.
Particularly embarrassing for prime minister Theresa May is the one featuring her tweet published before the 2016 referendum that prompted our protracted exit from the European Union: It said that staying in the EU would make the UK more secure from crime and terrorism.
Handled with care, though, social media can build careers, aid reputations and boost personal brands. There’s no reason why business leaders and entrepreneurs should avoid positing anything, giving any opinion—within reason—or using humor to make a serious point. But be wary of making comments about politics, making harsh comments about complex social issues or using irony that may be misunderstood.
It’s also important to bear in mind that the kind of risqué or provocative comments you may have made a few decades ago after a six pack, or those stupid decisions you made as a teenager that would normally have been forgotten the morning after, can now come back to bite you in the ass—forever.