Justine Sacco made headlines a little over year ago when a very ill-conceived tweet she sent burst into viral flames. Sacco was the head of global communications for IAC, and while heading home to South Africa to visit family for the holidays, she filled the time with some tweets, including this one: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Twitter uproar ensured. Due to Sacco’s being in the air for 11 hours, the world knew she would be fired before she did.
Since then, Sacco has largely shunned the spotlight — perhaps against her instincts, as a publicist. But a New York Times article by the author Jon Ronson has brought her back into the headlines. The article, which is an excerpt from Ronson’s forthcoming book, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” paints a sympathetic picture of Sacco, who says “I cried out my body weight in the first 24 hours” and describes the cost of her experience, from the shame she brought on her family to the loss of her job and her ability to date.
As far as redemption tours go, Sacco’s has been subdued so far. After she lost her job, she went to Ethiopia for a month, doing volunteer PR for a nonprofit. She returned to New York to work at Hot or Not, a Web 1.0 site that rated strangers on their looks that was trying to reinvent itself as a dating app. She disappeared from social media.
Unlike public figures, Sacco didn’t have regular opportunities to rehabilitate her public image, said Rick Kelly, who handles crisis communications for Triad Strategies, a Pittsburgh-based strategy and crisis management firm. Still, someone in her situation needs to regularly demonstrate to key people who matter to her that she’s not the person her tweet might have suggested.
“You have to take responsibility for what you’ve done, and you have to walk the talk,” he said.
Despite her low profile, the ridicule went on. Sam Biddle of Valleywag snarked of her Hot or Not hire: “Two lousy has-beens, gunning for a comeback together.”
Even so, Sacco kept her head down. She contacted Biddle, who later wrote an apology to her for posting her original tweet (Biddle had at that point been chastened by his own tweet shaming over a Gamergate tweet.) Sacco wasn’t looking for a story, though, according to Biddle’s telling: “She’d only wanted to meet up, she explained, because I owed it to her. I should get to know her before ever writing about her again. There was no catch, no setup, no tricks—she just wanted me to consider her a person, and not a meme.”
Ronson was the only person she talked to on the record, according to his article. (Digiday reached out to her last summer, but she declined to be interviewed.) Reached on her cell phone on Friday, Sacco would not elaborate on the Times profile. “I’m not going to comment on anything,” she said. She’s since left Hot or Not and is doing another communications job, which she wouldn’t identify.
Sacco apologized, and refraining from engaging with the Twitter mob might have been advisable in the early days. Providing more fodder for Internet trolls generally isn’t a winning strategy. Participating in Ronson’s book and showing contrition was a great step towards fixing her reputation, said Jay Kolbe, managing director of Sparkpr.
But for those who already have a bad opinion of her, it’ll take more than one apology to make things right, he added. “She’ll need to over compensate with being likable and contrite, to stem the negative tide with everyone she meets, probably for her career,” he said.