‘Twas high drama over here in Nashville last week as a prominent PR man was outed in the media for forwarding an email that visually compared Michelle Obama to a chimpanzee (see full story here).
This fellow hit “forward” and in doing so sent his entire career downward. And when I say downward, I mean total kerplunk-kablooey-splat. As news of this misfire spread, his firm lost its prominent Tennessee tourism accounts, his business partner bailed taking remaining clients with him, and said forwarder was left disenfranchised, disliked and dismissed. Ouch.
This very public tale is just one of countless stories of careers, relationships, companies and lives rocked by the power of electronic messages. While this incident involved an email forward, it serves as reminder that we’re all irrevocably, openly responsible for the messages we purvey in any electronic form.
From that blog post, Facebook status update or tweet to the comments we make on others’ posts or the presumably behind-the-scenes direct messages sent via social networks, we all need to heed that the world is, or could be, reading. There’s little to no going back once a thought is disseminated in the digital realm. Even direct messages can be forwarded or copied and pasted and sent en masse in the click of a mouse. There’s no shredding, burning or retrieving an electronic ‘oops.’ And boy do those electronic messages carry a big echo!
In my social media consulting, I often meet business people obstinate to join social networks because of privacy and security issues. Statistically, those most cautious are leaders at the top of the corporate food chain, in my experience. When I ask for articulation of the hesitancy, they mention concerns of being over-exposed, too transparent or excessively ‘linked’ to associates, employees or others, or they say they fear spam or account compromises.
Though email bears the same potential hazards (just ask that PR man at the top of this post), there’s a perception that social networking is a more dangerous, borderless, broader universe where anything we post can and will be used against us. While that might be accurate, I remind those I’m consulting that anything can be a tool of evil or of good, depending on who’s in control of that tool.
The ingredient that we should all fear the most in the social networking recipe is ourselves.
Just as anything we post could and might be used against us, anything we post could and might be used in our favor—if we’re posting, messaging and tweeting productively, judiciously, thoughtfully. I hear all the time “why would I want to tweet…who cares what I had for breakfast?” And I always reply, “who says you have to tweet what you had for breakfast?” You are in control of your messaging. You can use these tools wisely to engage in helpful, balanced conversation. The good outweighs the bad in using social networks if we can just remember to conduct ourselves with glass-house integrity and awareness of the what-ifs and implications of our online activities.
There was an incident recently in which a technical glitch diverted direct Facebook messages to inaccurate recipients. Yes, a direct message should, in theory, be behind the wall, not viewable by anyone but the recipient, but for a moment in time, some Facebook users experienced otherwise. And the results for some of those people were woefully awkward, embarrassing and hurtful. It was a shocking situation, but one that we should all know is not implausible.
I think social media adds a dimension to the old saying “character is who you are when nobody’s looking.” Today, we should remember “character is who you are when anybody could be looking.”
Ever heard of the blogger Dooce? She was canned from a career position for blogging all too honestly about her employer. Of course, her story’s punch line is that the firing made her infamous and widely followed, and then her entertaining blogging made her famous and wildly successfully. She’s the exception. Most who are indiscriminate in leaving electronic fingerprints don’t have such happy beginnings; they have bad endings (of jobs, relationships, reputations).
All told, I’m not saying to be less than genuine within your social networking. I’m recommending rationale and decorum, especially if you’re using these networks for business purposes. There’s a difference between being transparent and authentic and being crass, bawdy or generally thoughtless. Anyone with a streak of common sense and any time in the trenches of the work-a-day world should be able to err on the side of the former.
Thanks for reading!