The Fine Line Between Your Professional Brand and Your Organization’s Reputation

The Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Health Care Act (aka “ObamaCare”) last week brought with it some surprises, news coverage gaffes and high emotion in social networks, including some crude – and vulgar – tweets.

As I read the news coverage of and reaction to the bad social-media behavior, I mused on the connections between our personal social media brands, and the reputations of the organizations we represent. Many professionals – myself included – are active on social networks as de facto but not official representatives of the brand.  Sure, we can put “My tweets are my own,” in our twitter profiles, but in my mind, if you associate yourself with the organization you work for or represent, in my mind, you bear some extra responsibility. You may not be tweeting under the organizations’ official account but you are contributing to its reputation nonetheless.

The careless tweeters on Thursday did not benefit either their personal brands, or their employers’ causes.  The inflammatory tweets inflamed their opposition, supplying an opportunity for them draw additional attention to their point of view.    From a strategy standpoint, this tactic was a loser.

So here are my thoughts on guidelines anyone who associates themselves with a brand in social networks should consider adhering to when engaging in conversation online:

Keep it clean. Despite the fact that TV networks now regularly use language formerly considered vulgar in prime time, anyone associated with a brand should steer clear of doing the same in social media. And Defcon-five level vulgarities – i.e. the F-bomb, its derivatives and other phrases of its ilk – should be studiously avoided.

It will come back to you. Be sure you want to see it again. Sure, you can delete a tweet or a status update – but you can’t delete impressions, and if someone else grabs a screenshot of your message, your bad judgment may live on in perpetuity.

Would your boss/CEO/child/parents be horrified? If the message you’re planning to issue would cause people you care about – or people you want to respect you – to recoil if they saw your statement in the New York Times (or on Mashable’s home page), then don’t post it.  The same rule applies for petty insults and snarky commentary.  Don’t give in to temptation.

Take the high road. You will never go astray if you stick to the high road, and your statements will never come back to haunt you – or your boss. Be a good sport -a gracious winner and a good loser.  And never be a jerk.

Do some scenario planning.  What are the best- and (more importantly) the worst-case scenarios your message could generate? Do you want to have the conversations your missive could catalyze?   Before posting that Tweet, think through the scenarios.

Divide and conquer, or don’t mix work and play. It’s fine to have a space to let your hair down, and many people have “work” and “play” social presences. For me, my fun space is on Facebook. My presence there is decidedly non-professional – I yammer happily about sports, my garden and my pets – and my network is made up of people who I really do know and whom I consider friends. I manage my privacy settings carefully, so people I’m not connected with can only see what I want them to see. That said, I don’t run too far amok on Facebook, but I don’t avoid controversial subjects on that network.

It’s safe to assume that someone is always watching, and that messages you issue will never go away. Hewing to these simple guidelines will help you avoid tarnishing your personal brand – and the organization you represent professionally.

Have I left anything out? If so, leave your additions in the comments.

Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media, and is the author of the free ebook Unlocking Social Media for PR.

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