Health Agency Spokesman Steps Away in the Wake of Rant

2020-09-26 by Jade Minh

This week we have yet another lesson of how “speaking one’s mind” on social media can hamper or sideline a career, especially in public relations. We all have opinions, and we all want free space to express those opinions. Social media can lull us into a false sense of security, but the fact remains, social media is a PUBLIC forum and, thus, the public will see our private thoughts… and those thoughts will be carved in stone forever, even if the ideas expressed were a momentary bout with hubris or exaggeration. Just ask the spokesman for the US Department of Health and Human Services, Michael Caputo.

Caputo just began a two-month “leave of absence” after a social media rant went viral. The issue came to a head when the New York Times got hold of the rant and published some of Caputo’s opinions for general consumption. “Ranting” on Facebook, Caputo alleged that “government scientists” were “engaging in sedition” in regards to their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Caputo went on to allege – without citing evidence – that the CDC harbored a “resistance unit” that actively undermined President Trump’s leadership on combating the virus. Caputo added that “armed leftists” were preparing to foment rebellion following the election if Trump is re-elected.

Once the story went viral and got picked up by professional media, Caputo was forced to apologize, at least to his coworkers and superiors at HHS. In what has been described as an “emergency meeting,” Caputo told HHS staff that his comments “reflected poorly” on the HHS communications office, blaming his lack of decorum on “health issues” as well as the emotional toll of “fielding death threats” during this crisis. Speaking of his social media comments, he said:

“This was a mistake and contributed to my stress level, along with the increasing number of violent threats leveled at me and my family back in Buffalo…”

In a statement announcing Caputo’s leave of absence, the HHS communications office said Caputo was taking time to “focus on his health and the well-being of his family…”

The announcement had a ripple effect on the department’s leadership. Ryan Murphy, an assistant secretary, will take over for Caputo in his absence, and Paul Alexander, who was a senior policy advisor, left the department entirely.

Looking at this through a strictly PR lens, it’s yet another example of how a person in a position to know better hurt themselves and affected others within their team due to an ill-considered “rant” on social media. This kind of PR problem is entirely preventable.

The steps to prevention are simple. Say what you will around family and close friends you know you can trust. Do not put anything on social media you would not want to be chiseled into granite for public consumption forever. It’s been said before, and it will be said again: the internet is forever. Even deleted “rants” and “mistakes” live on well past the time when the person who posted them wishes they could take it back. Do not let that happen to you. Post wisely. Consider the consequences every time.