Bombs under wheelchairs, model airplanes and other stupid tweets

The last couple weeks saw two spectacular lapses in judgment in corporate Twitter accounts. The first was the pornographic US Airways tweet in response to a passenger’s complaints about a delayed flight and the second was an FNB employee’s flippant tweet about an ad personality’s activities in Afghanistan.

Each incident has unfolded a little differently. In the case of the US Airways tweet, it appears that the tweet was a mistake and that the employee concerned will not be fired. Here is an explanation of the incident and some commentary from Sarah and Amber on a recent Social Hour video:

On the other hand, FNB has reportedly launched disciplinary proceedings to deal with its employee’s tweet. According to TechCentral:

Disciplinary processes were under way following an offensive tweet sent from a First National Bank Twitter account, the bank said on Wednesday.

“We can confirm that disciplinary actions are currently under way as we are following the required industrial relations processes,” FNB’s acting head of digital marketing and media, Suzanne Myburgh, said.

In both cases, the companies concerned removed the offending tweets as soon as they discovered them and apologised for the tweets. Both incidents attracted a tremendous amount of attention and both brands were praised for apologising and being transparent about their investigations into their respective incidents. The benefit of this approach has been to mitigate the reputational harm both companies faced by engaging with their followers and keeping their customers updated on their investigations.

It is worth bearing in mind that managing corporate social media profiles at scale is not a simple exercise. As Cerebra’s Mike Stopforth pointed out in his Twitter post-mortem of the FNB tweet controversy:


He went further to characterise the tweet as a single error in the context of a very active Twitter profile:


I don’t think I would characterise the tweet as an “understandable error”. Twitter profiles as prolific as FNB’s @RBJacobs profile require careful attention to the kinds of tweets that may be published and to what extent the teams managing these profiles can inject their personalities into the corporate personality or representation of the brand online.

As I pointed out in my blog post titled “Gender activism, trolls and being fired for tweeting“, employees need to understand there are serious legal consequences for their bad decisions –

> From a Legal Perspective

The legal issues here are perhaps not as exciting as the raging debate and threats but they are important nonetheless. One of the central themes in the blog posts by both companies, Playhaven and SendGrid, is that employees who fail to fulfil their obligations towards their employers can be dismissed. In both Richards’ and Playhaven’s ex-employee’s cases, both individuals brought their employers into disrepute through their actions and, in this respect, exposed themselves to disciplinary action.

Employees owe their employers a number of duties and they can be disciplined if they fail to honour their obligations towards their employers. Employees’ duties include the duties to –

  • further the employer’s business interests;
  • be respectful and obedient; and
  • not to bring the employer into disrepute.

This last duty has received considerable attention in recent complaints brought to the > Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration> including the case of > Sedick & another and Krisray (Pty) Ltd (2011) 32 ILJ 752 (CCMA)> where the commissioner upheld the employees’ dismissals and commented as follows:

Taking into account all the circumstances – what was written; where the comments were posted; to whom they were directed, to whom they were available and last but by no means least, by whom they were said – I find that the comments served to bring the management into disrepute with persons both within and outside the employment and that the potential for damage to that reputation amongst customers, suppliers and competitors was real.


This case emphasizes the extent to which employees may, and may not, rely on the protection of statute in respect of their postings on the Internet. The Internet is a public domain and its content is, for the most part, open to anyone who has the time and inclination to search it out. If employees wish their opinions to remain private, they should refrain from posting them on the Internet.

FNB clearly seems to have a process in place to identify, respond to and address incidents such as this tweet. It presumably has a sound policy framework that it will rely on when dealing with its incident. This is where a social engagement policy (what used to be a “social media policy” and which has evolved since then) is really important.

Although much of the focus of a social engagement policy has traditionally been on behaviours which must align with the brand, the policy also serves an important disciplinary function by clearly communicating a standard which employees using social communication tools must meet. This, in turn, ties into one of the important requirements of a sound disciplinary procedure: demonstrating that a clear standard was effectively communicated to employees who were aware of the standard and failed to meet it.

We may learn what happens to the FNB employee who published that ill-advised tweet. What is certain, though, is that this won’t be the last incident like this. We will see more incidents at other companies and the sooner companies develop effective processes to address these incidents, the better.

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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