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January 12, 2011

The Web has no Undo feature, a lesson from Sarah Palin

by Josh Bernoff

Sometimes you make a mistake in the digital realm and you need to fix it. But once something is out on the Web and in social networks, you cannot erase it. Instead, you must apologize and move on.

The recent shootings in Arizona have created an interesting laboratory for observing this, because they caused a lot of the people who had amped up the rhetoric to wonder if they'd made a mistake. This post isn't about whether the rhetoric led to the shootings (that's not known and probably unknowable) or even about whether the rhetoric was a mistake. It's about how to step back from a mistake.

Sarah Palin and her people did this badly.

As Erik Sherman shows in this BNET article, Palin wishes she could take back some parts of her Web site takebackthe20.com. Her people had chosen the unfortunate metaphor of crosshairs on a map to indicate congresspeople to be targeted in the recent congressional elections. Now of course, they didn't mean literally targeted, but this looked pretty bad after the shootings. So they wanted to press the undo button.

The site's been taken down, but Google never forgets, so it's still in the Google cache.

They said the marks were "surveyor's marks" rather than crosshairs. Hmm.

The map was up on her Facebook page. It still is. That's where I got it.

Palin crosshairs

This is a classic example of the Streisand effect, in which attempts to remove things from the Web cause them to spread (named for the case where Barbra Streisand's lawyers attempted in vain to get a photo of her house removed from the Web). But this case is different, because the graphic was posted by the same people who were trying to remove it. So learn. You can't take something off the Internet, even if you put it there. And attempts to do so only make it worse.

This could be you. We all make mistakes like this. When you make a mistake, own it. Apologize and say you were wrong. Say why you were wrong and what you are doing to make amends.

That's what Johnson & Johnson did when it offended mothers with an online video about Motrin.

That's what JetBlue did when it stranded a bunch of passengers during a winter storm.

Apologizing is hard, but it's honest and people can see what did and how you fixed it. In the end, if you seek trust and a reputation for integrity, it's required. And it works -- the Motrin and JetBlue brands took their hits and moved on.

Failing to apologize and trying to hide what you posted, on the other hand, doesn't work and ruins your brand further. Don't go there.




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Elaine Spitz

Great points, Josh. Apologize and get on with it.
The people who are "never wrong" will help themselves and those around them with those two little magic words:
"I'm sorry".

Tony Loftis

All good points, but when your motto is, "Don't retreat, reload" apologizing isn't really an option. This is especially true when your audience thinks everyone else is overreacting.


If they were surveyor's marks, then why did she use the words "lock and reload" in her speeches? Thanks for making this very valid argument and sharing it.


Shameless exploitation of a tragedy and linking Sarah Palin to Az is absurd. This, written now, is not about anything other than that. Your decision to post it all needs an undo.

Brijendra Dharampuria

You captured my attention on a hide fact of web. We can place Undo button on our sites or other webpages that we are maintaining while removing wrong details from web is little difficult. It can be only through mail to search engines and other places where our wrong information is placed. But I think the best option is "apologize and move on." If you feel that you really done mistake.

Niall Harbison

Takes a while for people who don't spend their time online to figure this out. The classic example is companies leaving comments that they don;t realize can be tracked by IP address and enging up with egg on their face!

Find out about people:

The internet became so powerful nowadays that even we people can already traced a person's identity of info. Tracing their IP will help us know their location and even just commenting on sites can also trace them. I agree that you can't take something off the Internet, even if you put it there.

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