Elizabeth Lauten, formerly the communications director for Rep. Stephen Lee Fincher (R-Tenn.), is the latest casualty of nasty and thoughtless social media postings.  Her Facebook post criticizing the Obama daughters’ fashion choices during the Thanksgiving turkey pardoning demonstrated a lack of communications savvy in the extreme.  She had ventured into forbidden territory—attacking the first children.  One hopeful sign amid all the partisanship in Washington is that both sides agree the minor offspring of politicians are off limits.

Lauten’s quick resignation is yet another cautionary tale about social media.  It’s breathtakingly easy when you are sitting alone in front of the screen to write what you feel. That’s because there isn’t anyone directly in front of you reacting to your words and expressing joy or horror.  It’s also easy to forget that once those words are out there in the ether, they have a way of haunting your reputation like a creepy ghost.  If Harold Ramis were still with us, would he invent “Postbusters” to clear out all those never-say-die social media atrocities?

There is a difference between an honest engagement in constructive dialogue—which may even become heated—and the tossing of verbal bombs that are not only hurtful but fail to move anything forward.

And Lauten’s story isn’t the only cause for concern.  Take a look at the fastballs heating up social media in the wake of news developments from Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, and Los Angeles. Thoughtful expressions of outrage are healthy and necessary. But justice is never served when sense and sensitivity have been kicked to the curb.

If you’re fuming at injustice or wrong-doing, angry at an acquaintance, outraged by political behavior, or frustrated by a big bureaucracy, here are some tips on how to share your thoughts in a constructive way.

  • Think about what is really bothering you. Say you are upset by poor customer service from a retailer.  Talking about your experience, your frustration and disappointment in how you are treated is one thing.  I did that recently and got a quick response on Twitter from the company.  The blogosphere, however, is filled with vitriol that rises to the level of death threats.  That’s just plain wrong—and so misguided that it fails to help you or anyone else.
  •  Apply the “Get-Up-and-Walk-Around Rule.”  Before sending your post, get up, leave your screen, and walk around for at least 10 minutes.  When you come back, see if what you wrote is really what you want to say and how you want to say it.
  •  Put the “Jumbotron Rule” into play. Would you want to see your words and your picture show up on the jumbotron at your favorite sporting event or concert?   If not, hit delete.
  • Accept the consequences.  If you still decide to throw your verbal Molotov cocktail, be prepared for the consequences—like loss of friends, job, or reputation. And if it comes down to it, don’t play the blame game.  Be accountable for your words.
  • Don’t Count on an Apology as a Big Fix. If you do end up hurting someone else—whether it’s their feelings or reputation or something more dire—don’t expect that just saying you’re sorry will make it all better.  Apologies are important, but they don’t erase pain that’s already been inflicted. And if you have done serious damage, saying you are sorry is like using a fire extinguisher to contain a four-alarm inferno.  Much more than issuing an apology, you’ll need to engage in a frank conversation or more.  And you must show by your actions that you really do feel badly and regret what you said.

We need our social media to be powerful tools for commanding attention to injustice, expressing outrage, and demanding change.  But the pen (or in this case, the keystroke) really can be mightier than the sword.  And the brief pause for thoughtful consideration—before engaging in a rant—is priceless.