Here’s a quick way to become an Internet meme. First, win the Heisman Trophy, presented to the nation’s outstanding college football player each season. Then, walk out of a Publix without paying for crab legs, leading to an embarrassing citation from the police. That’s the recent experience of Florida State quarterback and relief pitcher Jameis Winston, who has found his way into the headlines for unwanted reasons following the incident. Technically, the football star was not arrested (communicators take note: falsely stating that someone has been arrested could be defamation), but the incident attracted national negative attention (public relations trouble) and led to an awkward public statement that included the following lines:
“I went to the supermarket with the intent to purchase dinner but made a terrible mistake for which I’m taking full responsibility. In a moment of youthful ignorance, I walked out of the store without paying for one of my items.”
When it’s worded like that, with several phrases that just seem to invite laughter, a public statement can sometimes do more harm than good. “The intent to purchase dinner.” “Moment of youthful ignorance.” “Without paying for one of my items.” These are the kinds of phrases that keep late-night talk show hosts going for weeks on end.
As reported by Fox Sports and numerous other outlets, the incident has ignited the Internet. It’s sparked a slew of Tweets, blog posts, and Internet memes, from fans, comedians, websites – even the Florida Commissioner of Agriculture. (Yes, that’s right.) Whether linking the quarterback to The Deadliest Catch or rearranging photos to show him scrambling out of a Publix, crab legs in hand, humor-minded Web users have found plenty of laugh about in this story. In the big picture, though, it illustrates a few things for converged communicators to keep in mind as the semester nears its conclusion:
* A clumsy public statement can be worse than no statement at all.
* Walking “out of the store without paying for one of my items” – it’s not legal, and it’s not ethical.
* Thanks to social media and the blogosphere, mishaps involving public figures can become nationally known – and nationally ridiculed – very quickly.