Royal baby tweet leads to firing, highlighting social media traps

A BBC radio host was fired in 2019 after posting a tweet featuring a photo of the new royal baby pictured as a chimpanzee in a suit and top hat.

Danny Baker was adamant that his post was not based in racism, but rather was a commentary and an attempt at humour – it was “supposed to be a joke about Royals vs circus animals in posh clothes but interpreted as monkeys & race,” he tweeted.

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, otherwise known as Harry and Meghan, made international headlines when their son Archie was born on Monday. 

When Baker’s tweet was called out as racist, he quickly deleted it and said the idea it could be interpreted as such did not occur to him because his mind is not “diseased.” Though he admitted it was a major error, the BBC acted swiftly in terminating his employment.

“This was a serious error of judgment and goes against the values we as a station aim to embody,” a BBC spokesperson said. “Danny’s a brilliant broadcaster, but will no longer be presenting a weekly show with us.”

It is the latest example of employers moving quickly to terminate a relationship when a staffer makes headlines for the wrong reasons. The BBC did the same when it fired popular Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson for allegedly punching a producer over the lack of warm food at a hotel following a long day of shooting.

Closer to home, we have the example of Shawn Simoes – a Hydro One employee who was quickly terminated after a vulgar and misogynistic slur was yelled at a female reporter for a Toronto television station. While he didn’t yell the phrase himself, he did call it “fucking hilarious,” adding that the woman was “lucky there’s not a fucking vibrator in your ear like in England.”

Hydro One’s decision to immediately terminate him quelled the outrage. There is, after all, no harsher penalty in an employment relationship than losing your job. Termination is often called the capital punishment of employment law. 

In an era where bad news can quickly go viral, acting fast — even if you have to backtrack later — is sometimes the least painful way to solve a PR headache. 

Simoes actually got his job back six months after being fired. It, of course, didn’t generate the same headlines. Simoes went to arbitration and was reinstated, but by that point the furor had died down and both employer and employee were able to put it behind them.

It all underscores how difficult the world of social media can be – it is a minefield of potential controversy, racism, misogyny and more. It’s why every organization needs a strong social media policy. Interestingly, the Royal Family has such a policy in place.

“The aim of our social media channels it to create an environment where our community can engage safely in debate and is free to make comments, questions and suggestions,” the policy states. 

It goes on to specify guidelines for anyone engaging with its social media channels, including a statement that comments must not:

· Contain spam, be defamatory of any person, deceive others, be obscene, offensive, threatening, abusive, hateful, inflammatory or promote sexually explicit material or violence

· Promote discrimination based on race, sex, religion, nationality, disability, sexual orientation or age

· Breach any of the terms of any of the social media platforms themselves

· Be off-topic, irrelevant or unintelligible

· Contain any advertising or promote any services

It also reserves the right to “hide or delete comments made on our channels, as well as block users who do not follow these guidelines.” 

My favourite social media story

This also seems like a good time to recall my favourite HR-related social media story of all time. It also happened across the pond, when record store giant HMV was terminating a large group of employees in 2013. It started with this tweet: “We’re tweeting live from HR where we’re all being fired! Exciting!! #hmvXFactorFiring

It was a great lesson for employers and HR professionals to ensure you know who has control of your social media channels, and if you’re terminating that person – you might want to take the device out of their hands first.

The tweets went on…

“There are over 60 of us being fired at once! Mass execution, of loyal employees who love the brand.”

And they got kind of funny.

“Just overheard our Marketing Director (he’s staying folks) ask ‘How do I shut down Twitter?’”

Then they got damaging.

“Under usual circumstances, we’d never dare do such a thing as this. However, when the company you dearly love is being ruined… and those hard working individuals, who wanted to make hmv great again, have mostly been fired, there seemed no other choice. Especially since these accounts were set up by an intern (unpaid, technically illegal) two years ago.”

Which, well, ouch. 

Even accidental tweets can cause headaches. Back in 2017, a contractor for Chrysler posted this tweet while stuck in traffic: “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one knows how to fucking drive.” 

He thought he was posting it to his own Twitter page, but instead it went out under the official Chrysler account. Oops.

And just last week we had a tone deaf tweet from Chase bank in the United States. It featured this fictional exchange between a bank account and a human. 

You: why is my balance so low?
Bank account: make coffee at home
Bank account: eat the food that’s already in your fridge
Bank account: you don’t need a cab, it’s only three blocks
You: I guess we’ll never know
Bank account: seriously?

The reaction was swift – Chase, after all, only survived the 2008 financial crisis thanks to a massive government bailout at a time when many Americans lost their jobs and homes. Senator Elizabeth Warren responded with a mocking tweet, pointing out that employers aren’t paying living wages, wages are stagnant and the cost of living in rising. 

It all goes to the core of this lesson – social media can be an incredibly powerful and positive tool for any organization, in any industry of any size. But tweet with caution. And be ready with a plan, because there’s a strong probability that it’s all going to go south at some point.