Stupid things people say online

In my book Social Media for Lawyers: Twitter Edition I sum up what a firm’s social media policy should be in four words: don’t say stupid things.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a universal symbol for sarcasm and there certainly isn’t a universal sense of humor online.  Some comments are taken too seriously, but some things should never be said at all. For every joke told there are those that think its funny, those that ignore it and those who don’t realize it was a joke.  Then sometimes there are people that take offense.  This is on my mind because there have been some bad jokes and insensitive comments shared online lately.  While these comments didn’t offend me personally, I will agree that they are all in poor taste.  Here are three of the more glaring examples:

1.  Akin Gump calls a Yaqui man’s prayer “ugly”

An Akin Gump partner attended the Arizona shooting memorial and in a conservative blog not affiliated with the firm called he was critical of a prayer offered by a member of the Pacsua Yaqui Tribe calling it “ugly” and continued to say:

“It was apparently was some sort of Yaqui Indian tribal thing, with lots of references to ‘the creator’ but no mention of God. Several of the victims were, as I understand it, quite religious in that quaint Christian kind of way (none, to my knowledge, was a Yaqui). They (and their families) likely would have appreciated a prayer more closely aligned with their religious beliefs,”

His comments were especially lambasted in the blogosphere because Akin Gump represents some of the largest Indian Tribes in America.  They even lobby on behalf of tribal rights, so the problem wasn’t just that this Partner’s post was politically incorrect, but that it was also a very bad business decision.  Here was one comment from the ABA Journal’s post on the topic:

As an American Indian person who has consulted with offices of AKIN, GUMP, (who have sought out our Indian legal business in the past), I am totally appalled and disgusted by the insensitivity expressed by Mr. Mirengoff.  If this individual ( Mr. Mirengoff ) is an example of what some have described as AKIN, GUMP”s ” best and brightest ” then we have to re-think our relationship with AKIN, GUMP.  Short of Mr. Mirengoff’s resignation from AKIN , GUMP or better yet, Mr. McLean’s termination of AKIN, GUMP’s business relationship with Mr. Mirengoff,  we can assure them that our business is better appreciated elsewhere.  Mr. McLean is prompted to resolve this asap, or AKIN, GUMP could become the “poster child” example of corporate stupidity at it’s best.

-Sonny Skyhawk

The blog post was quickly removed, the Managing Partner of Akin Gump issued an apology, and Powerline replace the post with this apology from the Partner, Mr. Merinoff himself:

“I sincerely apologize to my readers, to the Yaqui tribe, to all tribal leaders and Indian people, and, specifically, to Carlos Gonzales who delivered the prayer,” Meringoff wrote yesterday afternoon. “I regret my poor choice of words, and I have removed the post.”

It’s settled right?  He made a mistake, admitted it and now everyone can move on?  Unfortunately, the reaction to his comments will probably have far deeper repercussions than the comment itself.  Law firms will continue to be extremely cautious when it comes to blog use, even though no social media policy would have presented attorneys in their personal time from saying stupid things like those mentioned by Mr. Meringoff.

2.  Kenneth Cole tweet makes light of problems in Egypt

As well documented by Nancy Myrland in the post Kenneth Cole & Every CEO: This is your social media wakeup call the official Twitter account @kennethcole (not believed to be a personal of Kenneth himself) yesterday tweeted:

Now to be honest, my first reaction to this tweet was to laugh, but in a “funny how out of touch they are” sort of way.  It is clearly a joke, and while the joke is not in good taste, neither are any of the jokes made by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog.  That’s one of the challenges of participating online, you can make jokes- but they need to be safe jokes.

Kenneth Cole himself then comes on to Tweet for damage control:

And then on Facebook:

I’ll admit that I have worn Kenneth Cole shoes and suits in the past, and this series of tweets and Facebook messages has no bearing on the likelihood that I will wear their clothing in the future.  Price and style will continue to be my deciding factors in that realm.  I am still not interested in looking at their spring collection, but this “mistweet” has forced me to pay attention and discuss Kenneth Cole far more than I would have otherwise.  Because the tweet was a joke, not meant as an insult or to be taken seriously- I personally don’t see this as being a PR nightmare.  It may turn out to be more of a win for the spring line.

3.  Racist jokes on the TV program TOP GEAR are posted online (VIDEO)

There is no tolerance for racism online, so when the BBC aired a show where the hosts were making fun of Mexicans, the uproar should not have come as a surprise.  I don’t have space to share all of the comments here, but you can see the video and full discussion by Julio Varela on his post, Dear @BBC_HaveYourSay and @BBC_TopGear: Apologize Now

The BBC’s first step was to have the video removed:

Then BBC then makes a somewhat bold move and issues a response, but not an apology:

“We are sorry if we have offended some people, but jokes centred on national stereotyping are a part of Top Gear’s humour, and indeed a robust part of our national humour. Our own comedians make jokes about the British being terrible cooks and terrible romantics, and we in turn make jokes about the Italians being disorganised and over dramatic; the French being arrogant and the Germans being over organised. When we do it, we are being rude, yes, and mischievous, but there is no vindictiveness behind the comments.”

Or in other words, we make fun of everyone- so don’t take it personally.  I wholeheartedly disagree.  This isn’t like Yakov Smirnoff making fun of Russians or Chris Rock poking fun of his upbringing.  This is three white guys taking low blows at a minority.  The jokes made on Top Gear were not just satire, they were offensive and clearly in poor taste.

So what happens next?  Do companies need to test market jokes before sending them out?  A mentor of mine once said, “you can’t teach good judgment” and we are seeing the truth of that statement.  People that should know better say and do some pretty stupid things.

Were you offended by the these examples?  None of them?  All of them?  Are we being too sensitive?  Or are we still just trying to figure it out?


4 Responses to “Stupid things people say online”

  1. DA POSSE is is DA HOUSE! And to think we were just young social media bucks two years ago. Thanks, my friend, for the shout out. This is going to be a fun weekend.

  2. Thanks Adrian. I’m not sure it’s just a matter of being offended. It take a great deal to offend me as I’ve been around long enough to know what to let hurt me, and what to use as an example of what not to do, or to do.

    I think we all have a great deal to learn from these missteps, and the severity of the misstep doesn’t necessarily give a green or a red light to bringing them up for discussion. There are people out there skiing the slippery slopes of Social Media, and all communication for that matter, and they don’t always have a sense for what is in poor taste and what’s not. Using these examples as teachable moments, even if they teach a small number who then understand how to act in the future, can be well worth the time it takes to write about or discuss it.

    Thanks for your mention and link.

    • Nancy,

      I think it really is a matter of being offended. Lets be honest, what is going on in Egypt matters- while the spring collection is beyond trivial in comparison. If those in the blogosphere thought the joke was funny, this would have been a non-issue. No matter how much of an issue is made of this Kenneth Cole joke, it still isn’t real news- not compared to the real drama unfolding in Egypt. I just think this whole thing is a little overblown.

      Thanks for your comments though, and for your blog post which is what got me thinking about this.


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