Should You Delete Offensive (But Newsworthy) Tweets?

Hillary Clinton looks old. Rachel Maddow looks like a boy. Callista Gingrich looks like her hair snaps on. Old ladies look awful in backless dresses.

Nasty stuff, yes. But few of us would be terribly surprised if some teenage boy who didn’t know any better tweeted out those misogynistic sentiments.

Trouble is, those tweets weren’t sent by an immature teenager. Say hello to Mitt Romney’s new spokesman.

Richard Grenell, a former Bush administration United Nations spokesman, was hired late last week to serve as a national security and foreign policy spokesman for the Romney campaign. And he comes with a trail of nasty – and often misogynistic – tweets.

According to The Huffington Post, Mr. Grenell “appears to have deleted more than 800 of his past tweets.” Here are a few of his greatest hits:

No wonder he deleted them. But that raises a question: What should public figures do when they find themselves in Mr. Grenell’s shoes? Here are three ideas:

1. Don’t Write Offensive Things In The First Place

I don’t find Mr. Grenell’s tweets as offensive as I do reckless. Considering the long list of public figures who have ended their careers in a single tweet, I can’t understand why Mr. Grenell didn’t know better. The only conclusion I can draw is that he was intent on brazenly tweeting whatever he wanted, regardless of any consequences.

I wouldn’t hire someone who demonstrated that kind of poor judgment with social media. I’m mystified why the Romney campaign would willingly assume that risk.

2. Delete The Tweets…

…but don’t pretend you didn’t tweet them in the first place. And don’t expect that the tweets will disappear forever. They may be cached somewhere, and some enterprising person or group may be able to capture them before you can delete them.

Some P.R. pros will disagree with my advice, since deleting the tweets will surely make the story bigger (note the Huffington Post’s headline: “Richard Grenell, New Mitt Romney Spokesman, Scrubs Online Attacks on Media and Women.”)

The reason I advise deleting the offending tweets isn’t to eliminate them from the permanent record or avoid embarrassing headlines, but because doing so can help shrink the news cycle. A spokesperson who once said stupid things and then deleted them is better than one who said stupid things and proudly continues to leave them on public display under their Twitter byline. And a dumb tweet that’s been removed will likely occupy less media air than one that used to exist.

That said, you may get lucky; deleting a tweet may indeed erase the permanent record. If it does, take a deep breath and learn from your mistake. But don’t count on it.

Romney spokesman Richard Grenell

3. Apologize (But Not Like This)

Mr. Grenell told Politico that:

"My tweets were written to be tongue-in-cheek and humorous but I can now see how they can also be hurtful. I didn’t mean them that way and will remove them from twitter. I apologize for any hurt they caused."

 

Mr. Grenell’s apology appears perfunctory, seemingly motivated solely by one thing: necessity. I followed Mr. Grenell on Twitter for a few weeks, found his tweets to go beyond the mildly snarky and well into the distasteful, and chose to unfollow him. His tweets were not “tongue-in-cheek,” but consistently gratuitous.

And what does “I can now see how they can also be hurtful” mean? He couldn’t see that before? And it took him 800 offensive tweets to figure it out? If that’s the case, see my first point about his lousy judgment. I would have preferred a more genuine apology along these lines:

“I disagree with the political views of many of the women I’ve criticized on Twitter, but I should have focused my critiques solely on their ideas, not on more personal matters. My critics are right on that point, and I apologize. I will not repeat that mistake, and apologize for inflicting unnecessary pain onto others.”

 

Still – and here’s the part that may surprise you – his tepid half-apology will probably be enough drive this story out of the headlines.

Context matters, and many of these mini-controversies during the early days of a general election cycle have short half-lives. His apology will likely be just enough to reduce the story’s shelf life.

But even though he may get away with it, he should know that he unnecessarily sullied his reputation – and that a whole lot of people aren’t buying his apology.

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