Bad tweets happen to the best of us. Perhaps you’ve shot off an angry response to a troll telling them to buzz off or accidentally butt-tweeted a confusing string of numbers and letters that your followers interpret to be some sort of secret code. Maybe you’re drunk and decide it would be funny to post things in the voice of a Neil deGrasse Tyson impression—there are a lot of ways to look like an idiot online.
But for celebrities, this reality is heightened: bad tweets can derail an entire career. In the past few years, people with public-facing careers have had to deal with potentially damaging posts resurfacing online, from comedians like Trevor Noah (who seemed to think anti-semitism was funny) to journalists using racial slurs in tweets (taken “out of context.”) With dedicated fans and critics constantly mining celebrities’ social media accounts for controversial content, nobody is safe from having an Instagram photo or tweet from six years ago come back to reveal them to be an imbecile/racist/sexist/homophobe/general asshole.
But in the past few weeks, the stakes have gotten higher, as the alt-right has strategically scoured the social media histories of celebrities and people in the entertainment industry who are anti-Trump.
In July, Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was fired from directing the franchise after Mike Cernovich helped resurface tweets from 2008 in which Gunn joked about pedophilia. Shortly after, trolls began recirculating a 2009 video Dan Harmon, co-creator of Rick and Morty, created in which he pretends to assault a baby doll. Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson decided to delete 20,000 tweets after Gunn’s firing, not because he says he feared he had tweeted anything bad, but because it seemed like a good practice: “It’s nine years of stuff written largely off the cuff as ephemera, if trolls scrutinizing it for ammunition is the new normal, this seems like a ‘why not?’ move,” he tweeted.
How cynical and orchestrated are publicists when it comes to social media and deleting tweets? How do they deal with a client who might have several bad skeletons in their Twitter closet? And should famous people always delete their old tweets? A few publicists weigh in below.
Publicist #1 (Anonymous, Music PR)
Social media can be a slippery slope for anyone in the public eye. As a rule of thumb, it’s always better to err on the safe side. Once anything is published on the internet, even if it’s deleted five seconds later, somewhere there will be a record of it. Yes, I think it’s worth purging a client’s old social media account so they can approach stardom with a clean slate. Whether it’s fair or not, celebrities are held accountable for their past words and actions, and it only takes one off-color comment to completely derail a career. (i.e. one offensive tweet cost Roseanne Barr her TV show and reputation.)
Publicist #2 (Anonymous, Music PR)
First of all, it’s really important to mention that branding and PR love holding hands. Break them apart, and the relationship has problems. If old social posts don’t match “the brand” that PR is trying to convey to press, you get confused journalists. It’s important to establish adjectives for what you want the artist to be associated with—this can include color, texture, vibe, emotion, smell? sure, smell—you name it. We want to evoke critics’ five senses and use the age-old KISS approach (keep it simple, stupid). Think about artists who have really cohesive brands—ones you can describe in a sentence or two, with ease—they’re likely successful, right? That’s on purpose.
Anything that isn’t connected to the creators/artists’ specific brand for this project should be removed, as it’s superfluous. If an older post adds to the brand and connects to the adjectives that the artist is trying to evoke, leave it. If it’s unnecessary, off-brand, or could possibly be misconstrued, pop it on “only me” in terms of who can view. It’s like cleaning an old closet out: if it doesn’t fit anymore, throw it out. If it’s a color you’d never wear, throw it out. If it’s racist/sexist/homophobic/etc., burn it.
People are getting canceled out here, first of all. So anything hateful: delete it. Also, if something is off-brand, you might get called a poser if you switch it up in a totally different direction. At any rate, simplifying the brand and making the message more digestable to avoid confusion always helps and never hurts.
Publicist #3 (Anonymous, Entertainment PR)
Firstly, I always tell all of my clients to obtain two sets of social media accounts: one is for true friends and family and the second is the public persona. There is always still a risk but if they are going to do it this is a better way. Either way, part of media training your client is to get them to understand that social media is real time and raw and that there are people just waiting to troll on them so it should be treated as any other “outlet” “journalist” etc.
I do think that a public persona concerned with public opinion and continuing to work in this industry should control their public image and therefore review their previous posts. They should know if there was a particular thing or incident that may have set them off and go take down reactive posts. Just like athletes have a moral clause, if you are a celebrity looking to maintain a career other than a “shock jock” you should be careful to posting your personal opinions.
I also try to get clients not to post in immediate real time but rather wait and think it over so it isn’t so heated. I think people get fooled into thinking socials are really private forums for their friends and ideas rather than being the same as blasting it on the 5 O’clock news… it isn’t!
If in doubt, don’t post! If you can think back on an issue or time that you may have been heated, go back and cull and delete. If you post opinions freely be ready for the backlash. Don’t fall prey to those that try to draw you in for an argument. Have a crisis plan ready for if something goes wrong or is misinterpreted!
Old rule: If you don’t have anything nice to say… don’t post it! hahaha
Publicist #4 (Anonymous, Celebrity PR)
I do believe that social media purging is beneficial and essential for any creator and/or talent. As you invest in expanding your professional growth, your platforms need to have that third eye scope, so it is imperative to repurpose and dispose as needed. As a PR professional, I’ve had encounters with clientele who spoke their mind freely or addressed things that unfortunately I could not control as such in representation. We cannot control clients and their social media engagements unless they give us such control as a medium for crisis management.
Ultimately, the user must realize that you are creating a journey of history as a brand or influencer, both good and bad. Artists are no longer just artists in the world of pop culture. Their influence can jeopardize many extensions to their brand, including endorsements, brand partnerships, and so much more. When you grasp and understand the influence game, social media purging and management becomes easier and more efficient.
In essence, one moment of frustration, anger or mishap socially can go viral globally without a possibility of a do-over of any sort. As a PR professional, we must remind our clientele, even if it’s not heard, that their brand, its reputation and influence are socially powerful and fragile at the same time.