Toby Young and the Perils of Short-Term Thinking

The UK prime minister, Theresa May, said last week that she was “not impressed” with the comments made on social media by the newest member of the board of the Office for Students. She was not alone. Toby Young, a right-wing journalist, was widely criticized for tweets he first claimed were “sophomoric,” then “ill-judged or just plain wrong.” Those posts included references to “hardcore dykes,” “queer as a coot” celebrities and “universally unattractive” working-class students. A petition to oust Young from his new position on the regulatory authority for the higher education sector in England reached 200,000 signatures. And finally, it had the intended effect. Young, writing for London’s The Spectator magazine, said his appointment had “become a distraction” from the “vital work” of the Office for Students, apologized—and resigned.

What Young said did not mean he couldn’t do his job. But columnists have fought enough over whether Young’s comments made him ineligible for his new role. Liz Jones of London’s Mail on Sunday took aim at the “holier-than-thou stones being scattered through the glass houses” of the newspaper industry. On the BBC topical debate show Question Time, the Labour politician Dawn Butler said that Young’s comments proved he did not meet “suitable criteria for someone to be appointed to a government position.” The debate rages on.

Meanwhile, from a reputation management point of view, the furor over his posts suggested something else: the perils of short-term thinking. Believing that no one will ever care enough about you to go through your social media history looking for examples of tastelessness, political incorrectness or other kinds of perceived misconduct might seem humble, but as we’ve seen, it’s also often untrue. Posting unnecessarily divisive or offensive things for a quick laugh under the impression that no one will ever care is unwise.

The Toby Young story is an extreme example. But for high net worth individuals, CEOs, senior executives and politicians, the same kind of short-term thinking can define long-term success. In a time when celebrity is within the grasp of more people than ever before, it’s naive to think the things you say online can’t come back to haunt you. In the Young scenario, it’s mind-boggling that he didn’t anticipate this, and even more bizarre that he was so casual with so many posts on a public platform—never mind things said privately. It was only after the criticism that Young started deleting some 50,000 tweets. Did he forget he made them? Did he remember he made them but think they weren’t likely to rub anyone the wrong way? Did he make a mental note to “audit” his tweets later down the line and then forget to do so?

Don’t make the same mistake: Think about what you say in the spur of the moment, over the internet, and don’t take refuge in the idea that you can periodically “audit” your previous posts and correspondence for something that could be taken the wrong way. You’re likely to forget to do it or even forget what you said. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself how MSNBC host Joy Reid, celebrity vlogger Zoella, musician Stormzy, Gay Times editor Josh Rivers and countless others have all ended up apologizing for past social media indiscretions that they surely wouldn’t have wanted to be made public. Whenever you post something on social media, ask yourself: How will this look five, 10 or 15 years from now? How will this look if one day I ended up in the public eye? If you do that, you won’t go far wrong.

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