What We Can Learn from the Thoughtless Meme Threatening the Career of Executive Group President John Demsey
2/25/22 – – John Demsey, the Estee Lauder Cos. executive group president who oversees a portfolio of brands including MAC and Clinique, has been suspended from his job without pay after posting an offensive meme on his personal Instagram account. It appears that the 30-year employee of the cosmetics giant is the latest casualty of mindless social-media behavior by business executives.
A Meme Too Far
According to The Wall Street Journal, the potentially career-ending Instagram post, “pictured a spoof book cover of the children’s TV show Sesame Street,” made light of COVID-19, and “contained the N-word with some letters replaced with asterisks.”
As explained in an internal message obtained by WWD from Chief Executive Fabrizio Freda and Chairman William Lauder: “The content posted does not represent the values of The Estée Lauder Companies . . . As a company deeply committed to inclusive actions and behavior, and in line with our company policies, our employees and our leadership are accountable for upholding these values.”
Things don’t look good for Demsey, despite having what The Wall Street Journal describes as an outstanding reputation in the cosmetics industry:
“He was instrumental in tapping a diverse range of women as MAC ambassadors or collaborators, especially Black music stars, including Rihanna, Mary J. Blige and recently Saweetie. Over his tenure, Mr. Demsey, 65 years old, has coordinated numerous marketing campaigns and built relationships with fashion entrepreneurs and celebrities in New York and beyond.“
The Dangers of Seeking Validation on Social Media
It’s a lot easier to understand inappropriate social-media behavior by middle schoolers than it is to make sense of the digital recklessness increasingly displayed by business executives. But I believe the temptations for such personally destructive communication are similar for Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Tik Toc enthusiasts of all ages.
It’s not surprising or wrong that a high-profile executive in the glamorous cosmetics industry would want a presence on Instagram. Facebook (Meta), which acquired Instagram in 2012, describes the splashy, visual platform as, “a place where teens and adults go to discover what’s new and what’s next . . . The platform holds unique appeal because it captures the immediacy of the moment, ignites creative expression and provides a connection to a likeminded community.”
But there are dangers in that connection. Psychotherapist Emma Kilburn in a welldoing.org article titled “Why Are We So Addicted to Social Media?” gets to the heart of the matter:
“Social media platforms encourage us to focus on the validation and recognition they can provide. If you post a picture on Instagram, your notifications will tell you how many people have liked it. The more the better, right?! If you tweet a response to an author, politician, or comedian on Twitter and they like your tweet, you feel proud, and seen.“
Based on this theory, Demsey, like so many other business executives who have regretted an errant tweet or post, was consciously or unconsciously seeking validation from his 73,000 followers on Instagram. The desire to be liked or considered clever was powerful enough to put at risk his hard-earned reputation and impressive livelihood (Demsey’s total Estee Lauder compensation last year was more than $9.6 million).
The ability to connect with so many others with just a click — unprecedented in human history — can cloud good judgement. The late, great syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer described tweets as, “a direct conduit from the unfiltered id . . . they erase whatever membrane normally exists between one’s internal disturbances and their external manifestations.”
The Importance of Digital Due Diligence
Just as I recommend caution to corporate clients drawn to the flame of political activism, I emphasize the need for executives to articulate a personal strategy and establish boundaries before jumping onto social media platforms. The speed of digital communication is central to its appeal, but consider having an editor, a person whose judgement you trust, review every post before distribution.
Rising stars in business are told by PR gurus that it’s important to establish yourself as “your own brand.” That requires the same care and consistency devoted to the branding of successful products and services. Being seen and liked is not a complete or winning brand strategy.
We can all learn a lesson from John Demsey and hope that the reputational equity he’s built in his company and industry over the last three decades will earn him forgiveness. In the meantime, this email response received by a WWD reporter seeking comment from Demsey sums things up pretty well:
“I will be out of the office starting February 23, 2022, with no access to email or voice mail.”
UPDATE 2/26/22: John Demsey posts an apology.
UPDATE 2/28/22: Estee Lauder Fires John Demsey.