Fire is hot. Touch it and you'll get burned. This is a lesson in consequences that most any 3 year old understands. Yet, still, even the most successful and famous among us continue to play with blowtorches.
That might sound like an exaggeration, but in mass media and on social media there is a combined force-multiplier at work. There, any truly stupid action can and will burn you to the ground. This has been demonstrated time and time again (see Anthony Weiner, Chris Brown, et al), yet still we haven't learned to leave the matches alone.
For example, it's a very bad idea to refer to gay people as sinful in one of the most well-read publications in the world, especially if you're a national television reality star. It's also a horrible idea, as the communications director at a public company that owns several notable media properties, to send a racist tweet just before setting out on a 14-hour flight. (OK, it's a bad idea regardless of travel plans.)
The lessons from these two situations are far more complex than simply "news spreads fast." In the case of Phil Robertson from "Duck Dynasty," either A+E or Robertson himself must have had a publicist - and, well, Justine Sacco was a publicist. Somewhere along the chain of command of publicists and brain cells something did not fire.
Here's what you need to know to avoid and mitigate any mistakes that do catch fire:
1. Nobody is Bulletproof
Justine Sacco's tweet has been discussed to death over the past few days, with some questioning whether it would have spread so virally if she weren't in PR. In the end, it was a combination of Sacco's publicist job, her position with a huge media company, and the brazen awfulness of her tweet that did her in. Her history of regrettable tweets didn't help.
Justice had every reason to be confident - in 8 years she'd gone from junior account executive at a PR firm to senior director of corporate communications at a public company. Did no one along the way call her on her bad behavior? Didn't anyone say, "Hey, Justine, about all those awful jokes that make fun of other people's religions and countries: Your successes don't mean that they're okay."
Similarly, did nobody told Robertson to shut his mouth? I refuse to believe a publicist didn't exist in the chain that knew about his opinions. And if they did, why didn't they inform him of how awful it would be to tell a national magazine, especially one with an entire Gay section, how much he didn't like or respect gay men?
Every publicist should exist to bring their client down a few pegs. Every publicist should teach the constant lesson that no matter how much money you make or how many people like you, we live in a world where you can and will be held accountable for what you say.
2. Everything Is On The Record
Never assume that something said online, or to a reporter, will not be written down, even if they say it's off-the-record. Sometimes a reporter might be willing to hold back innocuous news, but if you've said something egregious to someone (especially if it'll make for front-page news), you should be prepared to have it printed.
In essence: Get every one of your clients' stupid opinions out of them before they speak to the press. Treat it like you're cleaning out a drain.
3. Not All Press Is Good Press
Conversely, you should also refrain from doing something simply for the sake of getting front-page news. For example, Goldieblox received a flood of press after entering into a legal dispute with the Beastie Boys. While some may argue it was a great way to get into the press, it's pretty much the only thing currently on their Google News feed. Worse still, the San Francisco Chronicle argues that Goldieblox is engaging in a "cynical PR campaign" and damaging the cause of getting girls involved in the field of engineering. While it's not clear whether the company used "Sabotage" just for the press, public perception is utterly out of your control.
4. Apologies Are Powerful
Cowboy and performer Will Rogers once said that "if you're in a hole, quit digging." Most situations -- though not all -- can be significantly improved through a sincere apology. That apology should be detailed, contrite, and to-the-point.
Don't attempt to cover up any action that was not a strict mistake (IE: my client backed into your car), and make sure to say how you’ll take action to remedy it. If you did damage to something, say how you’ll fix it. If you said something stupid, show you’re sorry and perhaps contribute something to help with the overall issue.
Resist, past the initial apology, going into a long dialogue on the subject, especially on social media. The above examples are both very clear -- one person apologized, and the other made what they must have imagined was an apology.
The problem? In the same statement in which he apologized, Robertson continued on the same line of thought that got him in trouble: "My mission today is to go forth and tell people about why I follow Christ and also what the bible teaches, and part of that teaching is that women and men are meant to be together."
In closing, I refer to another quote by Will Rogers: "Never miss a good chance to shut up."