Go back 100 years: You’re ticketed on the Titanic, but at the last minute, you take a different ship. To let everyone know you’re OK after the star-crossed liner met its fate, do you A) write a letter, B) send a telegram, or C) hire an airplane and invent skywriting?
Pose that question to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. She and travel companions including her family were ticketed aboard the ill-fated Asiana 777 jet that crashed Saturday in San Francisco, killing two and injuring dozens. The Sandberg party switched flights at the last minute so she could use her flight miles for her family’s tickets. After the crash, Sandberg naturally turned to Facebook to post a message on her page to let people know she wasn’t on the plane. “Thank you to everyone who is reaching out – and sorry if we worried anyone. Serious moment to give thanks.”
Innocent and irreproachable, right? Not these days, not on the Internet, and not for so prominent a person. Her post drew 8,000 “Likes,” but elsewhere, the Twitterverse and news sites turned savage. “Sheryl Sandberg Successfully Makes SF Plane Crash About Herself,” one writer opined, further insinuating that it was for publicity at the tail end of her visit to South Korea to promote her best-selling book.
THE PR VERDICT: “D” (PR Problematic) for Sheryl Sandberg, for not checking with her internal compass, or maybe a corporate PR person paid to think about such things.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Shun association when tragedy strikes. Sandberg could have signalled the all’s-clear without publicly saying a word. In the personal reality show that is Facebook, she did what any of us would do. But doubtless few of us have over a million people following our posts. Nor does such a person have the luxury of removing a regrettable post. As the second most famous representative of the world’s most famous website, every public move has PR implications. Those who mattered most doubtless knew her post-crash status soon enough while for everyone else, the news could have waited until the fires on the tarmac were put out.