Context is Everything or Why PR Execs Can’t Be Anthony Jesselnik

The Twittersphere took little time making its deliberation; the verdict was out. Justine Sacco is a racist imbecile incapable of performing her job as a high level PR exec at a major company. How could someone so stupid work in corporate PR? And what was up with the 15 other possibly-racist-but-definitely-questionable tweets she’s said in the last 3 years?

I was fascinated by how it all unfolded. As she sat at the terminal in Heathrow she had less than 200 followers on her Twitter account. When she landed  #HasJustineLandedYet was trending worldwide and she was the infamous idiot-Tweeter du jour with the digital lynch mob counting down her arrival and her imminent doom. Hopefully she didn’t drink too much on the flight to Cape Town. She was in for a rude awakening.

In case you missed it here’s the offending tweet:


What was she thinking as she crafted that post? Personally, I think she thought she was being irreverent, funny, shocking. She probably was pretty proud of it when she hit send. Yes, I think she was proud of what she wrote when she wrote it. She really thought it was funny. She thought a few of her friends would respond with “OMG I can’t believe you said that” “LOOOOOOOOL you are so bad.”  or some variation thereof. A few cheap favorites and retweets.

When she landed 11 or so hours later after her international flight I can’t imagine the look on her face when she turned on her phone. (Side note: Can phones even handle that many notifications at once?) I am betting she had an instant feeling of nausea and confusion. Could people really be that mad about what she said?

Yes, oh yes, they can Justine. It doesn’t matter that what she said is no worse than your average Sarah Silverman joke. Many a comedienne has made a career saying things a lot more offensive than that tweet. The problem is context. Justine Sacco was not a stand up comedienne and therefore the world did not think that Twitter was the appropriate forum for her to test the boundary between irreverent humor and bad taste.

I am not defending her statement simply trying to work through what I think was her reasoning for it. The other things she said? It really isn’t as baffling as you might think. Did you see the way she described herself?


She liked stunning people with her off color jokes being the “loud laugh” in the party. Do I think she is a casual racist as many surmised? Perhaps. I really have no idea. I think she probably was an equal opportunity offender that wrongly thought that her wild jokes earned her cred for being edgy.

She was wrong. As a PR director she should know it’s all about your audience. Who is your audience on Twitter? She thought it was just her followers. In fact, she probably very wrongly thought she was “amongst friends”.

Well, as a PR director for a major company people hold you to a higher standard when it comes to communication. Once again it is about context. Had she been say a communications coordinator at the same company or say a project manager I think people who have given her more of a pass.  As the director of PR at large company she doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt. She get’s tried before she could even defend herself.


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