What We Learned From Roseannegate
A single tweet can turn your life around.
In an increasingly connected world, in a matter of minutes a tweet can reach a massive audience, and whether you delete the original post or not, copies can and will make their way around the internet, leaving a permanent record of what was said.
The public's judgement spreads just as quickly.
Roseanne Barr learned that lesson the hard way this year with a tweet that cost her the highly anticipated Roseanne reboot: “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj,” Barr tweeted – “VJ” being former senior advisor to Barack Obama, Valerie Jarrett, who played an influential role in many of the Obama administrations major executive actions and legislation.
It wasn't long before Barr's tweet spread from Twitter towards other social media channels, and then to the mainstream media.
One of her show’s producers, comedian Wanda Sykes, tweeted that she was leaving the show. ABC Entertainment followed suit and cancelled the Roseanne reboot. Barr was dropped by her agency. All replays of the original Roseanne were taken off the air. All in less than 24 hours.
The lesson may seem as simple as “don’t tweet racists things,” but a seemingly “innocent” tweet can have serious negative repercussions. We may tend to think this is not the case given U.S. President Donald Trump tweets offensive things regularly. But Barr wasn’t afforded the protection of one of the most powerful offices in the world - and she didn’t have enough of a following that finds insensitive tweets entertainment. What we say can and will be held against us in the court of public opinion.
Think before you tweet
Years ago, comedian and television host Craig Ferguson came up with three questions to ask yourself as a method of managing your emotions before speaking out. The questions hold true now more than ever before and can be changed slightly to reflect the immediacy of Twitter:
First, does this tweet need to be tweeted? This is the time to think critically about whether or not what you want to say needs to be said.
Second, does this tweet need to be tweeted by me? If there is even a slight chance the tweet could get you in trouble, ask yourself if you need to be the one who says it.
And last, is this something I need to tweet urgently? Asking yourself if the tweet needs to be sent right now can stave off backlash. If the tweet is not urgent, don’t tweet it.
Crafting a corporate apology
The other thing we learned from Roseannegate was the power that comes with a swift corporate apology.
We’ve all heard the awkward, cold apology from a corporation that sounds like it was crafted by the legal department: “We deeply regret X and take this situation very seriously,” it begins. “We are working towards rectifying the problem,” it ends.
These types of statements ring hollow because they don’t show that there is a human behind the company and have been so overused that they sound robotic.
After Barr’s tweet, ABC Entertainment President Channing Dungey said in a statement “Roseanne’s Twitter statement is abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values and we have decided to cancel her show.”
While the statement does use some boilerplate language - and having that language pre-prepared should be part of every crisis communication plan - it uses adjectives that are personalized to the situation. “Abhorrent” and “repugnant” convey strong emotions that other people felt, as conveyed on Twitter after Barr’s tweet. The phrase “inconsistent with our values” distances the company from Barr, effectively branding her the problem, and not them.
And in an age where everything happens faster and faster, we must not forget how important it is for a company to respond in a timely manner. ABC’s president responded within 24 hours – a far cry from the deafening silence we heard from Mark Zuckerberg following Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal, which appeared to show the rest of the world that Zuckerberg wasn’t ready to face the music.
Immediate responses also show conviction. They show that whomever is making the apology didn’t have to think long and hard about it – it came naturally and it therefore must be part of their values. Silence shows fear, and without any sign of remorse, people are left to assume that any sorry coming won’t be genuine or that the person in question is simply not sorry.
Staying out of it by paying attention
Barr’s attempts at damage control highlighted an important message: companies need to make sure they don’t become part of the problem, and that means paying attention to the problem in the first place.
Perhaps looking for something to blame, Barr wrote that she was using the sleep medication Ambien at the time of her tweet and that was reason to forgive her. “[G]uys I did something unforgiveable so do not defend me. It was 2 in the morning and I was ambien tweeting,” she wrote.
Ambien’s maker, Sanofi, now became part of the problem. But the drug maker’s swift actions kept them from receiving any of the blame. “Racism is not a known side effect of any Sanofi medication,” the company’s U.S. account tweeted, effectively removing themselves from the problem.
The world is watching
Despite Barr’s regret, the internet has a long and unforgiving memory.
We are part of a time in history where information is being spread faster than we can respond to it. And because of screenshots and the ease of information sharing via social media, what you say online can never fully disappear.
And if nothing can disappear, now more than ever we must think critically about what we put out into the world. Roseanne Barr’s racist snafu is just one example of how a tweet can spark a full-on PR disaster for an individual or a company.
It’s no longer possible to hide the evidence before it has been seen and shared countless times, so think of Roseanne as your warning next time you want to tweet something that could get you in trouble.