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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

TMI on Facebook & Twitter - Can Professionalism Survive Social Media?

Lately I can't help but feel that we are slowly but surely witnessing the death of professionalism on social media websites. More and more often the comments I'm reading in status updates, tweets, forums and blogs leave me to wonder: Can professionalism survive social media?

Are you aware that everything you post online is just a copy and paste or screenshot away from going public no matter how private the place you posted it is supposed to be?

We all need to vent but here's the thing: Is a semi-private forum like Facebook (assuming you've set your privacy settings correctly) the best place to do this? Is it just me or does anyone else think that a lot of what professionals post online these days would be more appropriate to share in a private group message with a few discreet and empathetic industry colleagues or with personal friends who don't work in the same industry?

Social media sites like Facebook (because they offer a layer of perceived privacy) can lull you into feeling like you're sitting in your living room in a t-shirt and shorts chatting with friends instead of being onstage in front of thousands of colleagues and potential clients with a microphone in your hand. You can do both on Facebook, the problem is that you can never be 100% certain which audience you're talking to at any given moment

Why does this matter? Because if you're an entrepreneur your professional reputation and the reputation of your company could be at stake. If you're "sharing" TMI all over the internet you could lose potential clients or give your competition something to use against you to damage your credibility.

Professionalism is defined as the positive way you conduct yourself in business. It's how people perceive your competence to do your job with integrity following a code of conduct that sets you apart, elevating you, above the rest of your industry. IMO one of its main components is discretion. Seriously, what you say online matters. Words either reinforce your professional image or can damage or destroy it.

My personal rule of thumb is this: Would I add what I'm about to post (on Facebook or Twitter) to the home page of my company website or say it to a client during our first consultation? (Those of you who have synced your RSS feed to republish your Tweets or status updates on your website are doing exactly that.) If the answer is no, don't do it.

Who are your "friends, friends?" Unless you and your 500 Facebook friends have ALL set your Facebook wall settings to "Friends Only" AND actually "know" the people you have friended, anything you post, both status updates and comments, can be read and shared by people you don't know.

Some of you may be surprised to learn that your colleagues have friended some of their current clients on Facebook. Are you comfortable with them reading your venting and off color humor? If you are, post away. If you aren't, just tone it down a bit.

Publicly isn't the best place to sort out conflicts: When you're frustrated with a client, colleague or family member do you head online to vent? When you're in the midst of trying to resolve an issue (personal or professional) and don't know how, yet feel compelled to post about it on online, why not ask for suggestions that might help you to find a constructive solution? IMO it's a far better approach than venting your frustrations amidst a flurry of WTF's or worse...

Take the recent case of a bakery that went over the proverbial line. When a woman was offended by their intentionally provocative tagline she commented her displeasure on their blog threatening to start a Facebook group to boycott them and contact local news outlets until they changed or removed said tagline. Their public reply:
"We offend everybody equally. You are the one with hate in your heart not us. Since we are fortunate enough to live in America you can do whatever you want."

The bakery didn't get that exercising their freedom of speech wasn't a good marketing strategy or conducive to selling, among other things, $8 cupcakes. After more readers agreed the tagline was offensive the bakery posted again saying they had removed the tagline. The woman thanked them for their sensitivity... End of story? Should have been. Instead, one of the two bakery owners took to a personal (but set to public) Twitter account and called the woman a "F@# C%&#."

Whoa. Seriously.

When the woman's friend saw the tweet all hell broke loose.

When they realized the tweet was seen by others, the company removed it and made a public apology in their blog. But the damage had been done. As word spread their Yelp reviews and brand took a beating in multiple, national, highly trafficked blogs that detailed the saga, many times word for unconscionable word.

Things continued to blow up for several days until the woman the insult was about, finally put an end to it by publicly accepting the bakers apology. She didn't want their business to suffer. In the end the bakery chalked it up to a learning experience.
"Things we learned on Tuesday: Apparently we do not have private Twitter accounts anymore. Everything is business. Lesson learned."
That's an extreme case I wanted to share with you as a cautionary tale. The truth is you don't have to be nearly that offensive to do serious damage to your own reputation and brand.

Self Sabotage: Can the things you post damage your relationship with other professionals? Can they cause a colleague to become reluctant to recommend you because gauging by what you're saying on Facebook, they're not sure if you know where "the line" is? Will you say inappropriate things to a client they recommend to you and embarrass them?

It's Already Out There: Keep in mind, once you post, publish, submit information onto the internet it is impossible to ever take it back 100% so you need to be sure that you're not just comfortable posting that comment today, will you be comfortable seeing that same comment months, years or decades from now? Even if you remove a comment, post, web page, or photo it can be indexed in an archive website or a single screenshot can go viral within minutes and the next thing you know it's everywhere, forever.

You may think you don't care if something you say or do goes viral, until it does. Then all you can do is apologize, deal with the fallout and try to earn back the respect and trust you once had: The reputation you probably invested years or decades earning the first time around.

As Pee Wee Herman said in Pee Wee's Big Adventure:
"There's a lotta things about me you don't know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand."
Do you really want Dottie, or in this case strangers who could become potential customers (if you don't frightened them away) and your colleagues (who you hope will recommend you to their clients), to know about your bowel movements, the last time you threw up and that you gossip and bash people (clients, family, friends and colleagues alike) behind (what you mistakenly believe are) closed doors?

So I post this in the hopes that at least some of you may be less public with information that can scare away potential clients or damage your professional reputations. If you see a friend update, comment or tweet something that you think could be damaging and they may not have realized it, why not send the person a private message and share your concern? I've done it a handful of times on Facebook and so far nobody has told me to mind my own business. Some have taken comments down and even when one chose to leave a comment up, they told me they appreciated that I was concerned for them. If you ever see me do it, PLEASE let me know! It's always nice to know someone has your back :)

Suggested Topics to Avoid:

BM’s, Vomit and other Body Secretions 
(kid and pet poop included)
Bashing Clients
Bashing Competitors
Bashing Family Members
Making Fun of the Homeless, Mentally Ill and Handicapped
Avoid Controversial Topics: Religion, Politics, etc.
Road Rage Incidents
Financial Problems


  1. This serves as a good reminder as to how vast the internet is and how easy it is to forget it's "efficiency" in circulating information - no matter how positive or negative. Great wake-up call Stacey.

  2. Hi Stacie,

    BRAVO for pointing out so clearly what SHOULD be obvious to all of us, but clearly isn't.

    Each new "horror story" we hear reminds us of another we just heard about, and sooner or later (sooner, I hope), it'll become common knowledge how navigating the miraculous world of social media can lead us into treacherous terrain.

    Very helpful advice! SHOULD be "common sense".

  3. Thank you for your comments Nancy and Robbie.

    I really think the challenge with FB in particular is that people tend to think they're only talking to the people they talk to most frequently and forget about everyone else who can read what they post because they don't interact with them on a regular basis.

    That and people putting way too much faith in the "privacy" they think a site offers to protect them. If nothing else I hope this post helps some people to realize that nothing you post online anywhere, ever is guaranteed to remain private. Even emails can be copied and pasted, accidentally forwarded to the wrong person or grabbed in a screenshot.

  4. I have to agree with you that online decorum is dying by degrees (death by 1000 poop stories). Social networking has changed the fabric of conversation as surely as email has changed the act of handwriting. I wish I could just say 'use your common sense', but that seems to be in short supply as well. Just knowing that my clients can/will be reading my posts makes me think twice before sharing any kind of info.
    Keep spreading the word, it might not make an immediate change for the worst offenders, but little ripples can often end up as large waves.


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