Have you heard of Justine Sacco?

If you’re on social media, it was hard to avoid over the weekend. She was the public relations professional who posted an offensive tweet on Friday before boarding a plane to South Africa.

Never mind that she had only 200 or so followers when she made the tweet.  By the time she got off the plane, a firestorm had erupted on Twitter that was arguably unlike anything that we’ve seen in some time.

Boing Boing has a detailed account here, but in case you missed the story, here’s the basic outline:

As she embarked upon a long flight to Africa, PR staffer Justine Sacco issued this tweet. At best a darkly ironic self-deprecation that could never fit into 140 characters, it resulted, within bare minutes, in an internet-wide scandal. Even as the plane is still in the air–Sacco presumably oblivious–there [was] a hashtag, #HasJustineLandedYet, a parody account, @LOLJustineSacco, a fake movie poster, and, God help her, a whole entire New York Times article, replete with a stunned disavowal from her corporate employers.

The meme was incredible and fueled by the fact that she was on a long flight — with no internet. By Saturday, Sacco was fired.

By Sunday, she apologized profusely:

“Words cannot express how sorry I am, and how necessary it is for me to apologize to the people of South Africa, who I have offended due to a needless and careless tweet….There is an AIDS crisis taking place in this country that we read about in America but do not live with or face on a continuous basis. Unfortunately, it is terribly easy to be cavalier about an epidemic that one has never witnessed firsthand… I am ashamed.”

But the damage was done.   21st century justice on Twitter is swift and unforgiving.

Faith Antion, of Adnet, is quick to point out on her blog that social media administrators should know better at this point than to use Twitter in such a fashion:

The sense of responsibility I carry as a social media admin extends beyond the limits of my organization’s social media policies. To say that I think before I post is a massive understatement; I check my profile multiple times before posting to ensure that I am choosing the correct one for my statement, especially on a mobile device, which makes the occasional “oops” remarkably achievable.

Faith is undeniably right.  And yet, what happened with Sacco still leaves me with a bit of unease.  The mob mentality on Twitter was quick to condemn — even for someone who was a small-ish player for a media company with less followers than, well, people like me. As one commentator noted, “As sport in the Twitterverse, destroying Justine Sacco disgusted me.”

Is what Sacco said offensive? Yes, quite so and racism has no place in today’s society.  Did she deserve to be fired? The employer here really had little choice after the tweet spread on the web — even though the account was from Sacco’s “personal” one, not the company’s channel.  But does she deserve to be threatened with her life and banished from work forever? No.

For employers, the Sacco incident is an important reminder that social media is unlike any communication tool we’ve seen before.  If someone with just 200 followers can set off a worldwide firestorm with one tweet in hours, imagine what could happen if someone at your company posted something just as offensive? For all of the good that Twitter offers, it can turn into a mob just as quickly.

What happens if you do make a mistake? Crisis management professionals, like Andrea Obston, have suggested apologizing quickly, but she is quick to point out that there are a variety of steps that should be taken as well.

I’ve said this time and again, but social media is a presence that is unavoidable for employers now.   Educating your employees about what can happen even by writing one stupid and offensive tweet may save your company lots of anguish in the future.  The mob on Twitter is just waiting for its next target.