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Who really owns your social media persona?

March 17th, 2009 · 42 Comments · Employees, Growing & Learning, Trends

Twitter-logo_000jpeg One of the uncomfortable truths that social media is hoisting upon us is that the clear separation between our personal and professional lives that most of our parents enjoyed during their careers is now nothing more than an illusion, if we even try to keep up the facade.

When I look at my Facebook updates, my Tweets and even my LinkedIn account (not to mention all the other social media hot spots) I see a blend of my old high school friends, my family, my marketing peers and MMG clients.

So when I tweet about my never-ending cough or my daughter's latest role in the school play…my clients see it.  And when I have my most recent blog post or a link to a marketing article appear on my Facebook newsfeed…my high school friend the chef sees it.  There's no way to keep the two apart. 

For me, because I own my agency, that reality is pretty comfortable.  I'm mindful of it, but it doesn't change all that much for me.  After all, people are going to associate me, Drew, with McLellan Marketing Group no matter what.

But here's what I am wondering.  If you are employed by someone else — do they in essence own a part of your social media persona?  Aren't you (despite any disclaimer language) representing your employer just as much as you the person when you tweet, blog or update a status? 

  • Does your boss want you posting weekend party pictures to your Flickr account? 
  • Should you be playing "Pimp Fight" on Facebook when you know that some of your friends are also "friends" of your company?
  • Do your blog posts (again, regardless of the disclaimer) reflect on your boss or company as much as on you?
  • When you drop an F bomb in a Tweet, do you think your boss has the right to wince?

What do you think? 

Do you think employee manuals of the future will have "social media guidelines?"  Do you think your boss has a right to censor your social media activity?  Do you think you have an obligation to do so?

Interesting stuff, eh?

Update:  Check out this post from Phil Gerbyshak about employers watching what employees are saying.

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42 Comments so far ↓

  • David Stocker

    You could also take the radical approach of not mixing business with pleasure with regard to social networking. My Facebook account has zero work related content. If a colleague wishes to look at it, fine, but I don’t consider Facebook an appropriately “professional” medium.

  • Cece Salomon-Lee

    You have a very good point. I’ve tried to keep my “professional” and personal life separate through:
    1) two different public user names (csalomonlee=personal / cece salomon-lee=professional)
    2) Facebook for friends, LinkedIn for work
    3) Twitter for personal friends and interests while corporate ID for professional

    However, I’ve realized that people don’t make the association between the two, especially when done in public and when my Tweets are fed into my Facebook. They see YOU as both your personal and professional. As such, I do try to be careful about my public persona as potential customers and until recently employers had access to my public information.

  • Brett Duncan, MarketingInProgress.com

    I, too, first struggled with whether I should parse my updates depending on the audience. I’m sure there’s a time or place for it, but I finally decided that I just need to share who I am to whomever wants to know (i.e. follow, befriend, etc.). I think it works better that way, and it’s actually a great way to learn stuff about people you thought you already kinda knew.

    To David and Cece, I don’t think it’s as simple as having separate accounts for separate content. Your office’s clients can still follow you on Twitter whether you follow them or not. And, I would think it’s tough to turn down a friendship request from a client on Facebook. Whether you’re talking about your work or not, you are still a representative of that office.

    With that said, I think there are two truths here that we will all wrestle with for a while: 1) Businesses are going to have to learn to deal with, and embrace, employee involvement in social media. There’s no stopping it. 2) I think bosses do at least have the right to say “I really wish you hadn’t posted that. We’ve got clients watching and that makes an impression I’d rather not be making.” I don’t think bosses have the right to police your content (your f-bombs, for example) when it doesn’t reference the business, but I do think it will influence hiring and firing a lot more.

    If I run a private business, and I’m fed up with what an employee’s social (media) life is doing to my business, I simply would cut ties.

  • Daphne Christensen

    Great post, Drew.

    I am constantly baffled by the tweets that drop F-bombs, etc., with that person being under the umbrella of a professional association or organization.

    Most recently, a local TV news guy was ranting about something completely unrelated to his work, using terrible language that I am sure his employer had no idea of (and his twitter handle identifies the station!).

    While at lunch with a fellow twitter friend, I had an obnoxious post to my Facebook account that sent me over the edge (thank God for my Blackberry). I couldn’t get it off my Wall fast enough. People need to think and rethink about what they are saying and weigh the impact on not only their employer but their own personal brand before posting anything, anywhere.

    It brings back the old cliché saying “you are who your friends are.”

  • Craig Barnes

    A great question you pose, Drew. My objective has been to leverage Facebook and Twitter as business-building tools. My frustration with Facebook is that I’ve been contacted by a host of old acquaintances, and as such, it’s been a struggle to manage the separation. I’m reminded of a post I saw a couple of months about an agency account director working on the FedEx account. He tweeted a less than flattering general description of Memphis and the people who lived there. He did this as he was on his way from the airport to a meeting at FedEx. It turns out that one of the clients was following him on Twitter. Well, you can imagine … it wasn’t well received. We all need to remember that we’re displaying our life and thoughts through a 24/7 glass store front.

  • Drew McLellan

    David,

    I think that is a solution that many people are trying to implement. So what do you do when a client/vendor sends you a Facebook invitation? Just ignore them?

    Or, are you saying that it’s a buyer beware situation. Your clients can be your friend on Facebook, but you’re only going to talk about your personal life there?

    Drew

  • Drew McLellan

    Cece,

    How well is that strategy working for you? Are you able to keep friends and work related people separate?

    I’d worry about posting the wrong thing to the wrong account. Have you ever accidentally “cross pollinated” and shared the wrong content?

    Does it take you more time to maintain the two personas?

    Drew

  • Heather Clark

    I’m reminded of the case of the off-duty firefighters and police officer who marched in black-face during a 1998 parade (link to tinyurl.com). The men who were fired ultimately won their case against the city of New York and were reinstated in their jobs. However, much of the opinion found on the internet is in favor of their firing.

    You raise a good point when it comes to social media, just another avenue through which our actions become magnified beyond our control. I also made the decision that Brett made, sharing my feed and page with those who asked to be friends with me. And now it is my responsibility to sensor what is posted so that it positively reflects on me. I now worry about my mother seeing things on facebook as opposed to clients!

  • Drew McLellan

    Brett,

    It’s a sticky wicket, isn’t it?

    So because you have decided to “bare all” so to speak — do you find yourself censoring what you share or what applications/causes you support?

    I think employers are really going to wrestle with this one. Yes, we’re all smart enough to google a prospect, check their Facebook, etc before we hire them. But…what do you do/are allowed to do when a current employee does/says something that you believe puts your business at risk?

    I suspect we will see responses all over the spectrum. Can a company forbid their employees from having a Facebook account? Can they regulate what they do on that account?

    Or…as you suggest, do they have a right to fire someone based on social network content?

    If you were going to draft a social networking policy — what might it contain?

    Drew

  • Kamy Herbst

    Hum… such a large discussion topic that’s entwined issues of Marketing to HR.
    I think I started out trying to keep my personal & professional “online” presence separate. However, I’ve always done business personal. I am, who I am, and everyone has a personal life. When you have common ground, common interests or common goals, business is always more smooth, enjoyable and ideally repeated. So I guess it made sense for my online personas to overlap. And I like it, gives me a chance to get to know the person better, and them me.

    DOn’t you think who you are personally has always reflected your work & vice versa… Aren’t most mindful of what you say & what you do publicly, I think it’s kind of the same. You do need to be mindful and your boss does have the right check it out from time to time. I’m not sure anyone “owns” anything its just whats always been.
    y/n??

  • Sonia Singh

    I too have tried to maintain a distinction between my personal and professional communications. I’ve been on Facebook and MySpace longer than I’ve been working full-time, so it’s something I’ve had to adjust to over time as these and other tools get more mainstream. I’ve been upfront with some people about my intentions: a coworker wanted to add me, and I simply shared with her (in person, before she added me) what my preferences are.

    On Twitter, I have an account for my employer and a separate one for my own business. In the profile for my employer’s account, I identify myself as a staff member and share my other handle for anyone who wants to follow me there. In addition to delineating the two companies and properly targeting followers, it also allows for communication if/when the responsibility for tweeting should change hands.

    As far as ownership, I think that the employer has significant say over what you say/do in the company’s name and on the company’s time. At that point, your responsibility is to represent your company. Do it as you would in any other situation.

  • Drew McLellan

    Daphne,

    I think it happens all the time, especially on those social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that feel more personal than work related. Twitter gives you the illusion that you are speaking to a small group of your friends.

    I was stunned, during the Presidential election period, at how horrific and judgmental people were of anyone who didn’t share their beliefs. There was name calling, foul language and a lot of badgering.

    I can’t imagine any boss would have been thrilled at that kind of behavior, regardless of their political leanings.

    Drew

  • Drew McLellan

    Craig,

    One of the great things and not so great things about social media is that it is a participatory medium. We can’t control the comments left on our blog, the friends who reach out to us on Facebook or the photos people upload.

    So we have to tread lightly and be ever watchful over our online persona.

    As a business owner — do you have a social media policy? How would you handle it if one of your employees made a faux pas like the agency exec re: Memphis?

    I predict this is something we’re all going to have to deal with down the road.

    Drew

  • Drew McLellan

    Heather,

    It suddenly feels like we are very exposed in some ways, doesn’t it? Like you, I have this crazy blend of people who are connected to me in various social networks.

    I have to think I bore my friends most of the time, because I tend to talk business. It’s a balancing act.

    Do you foresee employers putting out policies on this or is it already too far out of their scope?

    Drew

  • Drew McLellan

    Kamy,

    Yes, I think no matter what you do, your personality and personal life seeps into your work. And like you, I think that makes for better client relationships.

    But…we both (I am guessing) censor the stories we tell, the pictures we show, the opinions we share. I definitely monitor what I put out there.

    But…we both work for ourselves. But what about when someone employs another person? If you lose a client because of some photos an employee posts — is that a fireable offense? When an employee expresses an very strong opinion on a highly controversial issue that conflicts with your client’s beliefs — is that a problem?

    You’re right…no one can “own” it per se. But who owns the consequences?

    Drew

  • Drew McLellan

    Sonia,

    Thanks for weighing in. So you told your co-worker that you didn’t want to add them as a friend? How did that go over? Have you’ve ever run into a problem because of your stance?

    Do you believe that your employer has any right to monitor or have an opinion about what you post on your personal accounts? I know you wouldn’t but what if you were posting inappropriate photos etc.

    If your employer required you to be his/her friend — would that be a deal breaker for you?

    This is a fascinating topic to me, because the answers are murky at best. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Drew

  • Brad Williamson

    Love me or leave me, I don’t care.

    I’ve never cared what negative thoughts others have had about me, and I’m not going to begin now – even if it is my employer. Any company that frowns upon my personal activities is not a company I want to work for.

  • Drew McLellan

    Brad,

    Thanks for jumping into the conversation.

    Are there any circumstances that might change your position? Let’s take it away from it being about you personally.

    If an employee posted something that was very racist or shared information about a client’s business — does the employer have a right to take action?

    Or do you believe that everyone has a right to say whatever they want…and the employer just has to deal with it. Which, by the way, is what several people via e-mail have told me.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

    Drew

  • Scott Townsend

    Everyone needs to read the Privacy section in the book, Age of Conversation 2

  • Drew McLellan

    Scott,

    So in summary — what would you say about this issue?

    Drew

  • Scott Luptowski

    Drew,

    I think that sharing personal information with colleagues and clients is beneficial up to a point. I agree with Brett Duncan that small comments – about your cough, for instance, or your daughter’s play – help people who do not know much about you learn more things about you. Isn’t that the reason you’re following them in the first place?

    There’s of course a line that’s crossed when you’re talking about party pictures on flickr or “dropping the f bomb,” as you say. But in my opinion, every company knows (or should know) that their employees swear and have fun with their friends from time to time. There is a world of difference between a tweet that says “Long night, rough morning” and one that crudely mentions the events of a party. It is all about the way the information is presented.

  • Chris O.

    I think companies are also going to have to get a bit more comfortable with the reality of social networking.

    We all do things in our personal lives that would break the corporate facade but I think trying to suppress that is futile.

    Great post,

    @ChristopherOtt

  • Drew McLellan

    Scott,

    As with most things, I suspect the answer is about finding the balance between being appropriate and over censoring.

    It’s really no different than what you’d “regulate” at a client dinner or any other interaction. Except that I think with social media, we sometimes forget who all is listening.

    Drew

  • Drew McLellan

    Chris,

    I think we still have a long way to go to get everyone ready for the reality of social networking. Companies need to recognize that their employees are people but employees also need to realize that their life is now more blended than ever before…and they have to adjust accordingly.

    Thanks for jumping into the conversation.

    Drew

  • Janet

    Drew, I think you actually summed it up quite well: “Companies need to recognize that their employees are people but employees also need to realize that their life is now more blended than ever before…and they have to adjust accordingly.”

    It’s very much a two-way street, requiring adjustments from everyone.

    I’m one of those who has tried to keep things separate, but finding – especially with Twitter – that I’m sharing some of the same things in both arenas anyway. It’s leading me to believe that “blended, with restraint,” is better than separate, if only because it reduces the number of accounts I have to manage. It also makes me strive to be a more interesting person to friend or follow, because I think harder about what I’m sharing.

    I’m also fully aware that employers look for (or may someday see) this stuff, and I don’t mind behaving accordingly. What’s going to happen, of course, is that eventually there will be a generation of workers AND of leaders who grew up with social media, and will probably have a very different attitude toward the melding of personal vs. professional sharing – for them, it may not even BE an issue of personal vs. professional.

  • Brett Duncan, MarketingInProgress.com

    Wow, what a great collection of thinking on this topic!

    After reading through most of the comments, I still find myself backing up and trying to think like an “enlightened boss.”

    If social media helps give my company life and personality via my employees, then I need to embrace it somehow. If you’re doing your job and making it a healthy place to work, then the pros will far outweigh the cons.

    I think it also depends on what kind of place you work at. Cursing via tweet isn’t so bad for, say, an IT consultant firm as it is for a church. Employees need to be aware of the consequences and perceptions that are acceptable in their industry and with their customers. That’s a basic responsibility for any employee.

  • Drew McLellan

    Janet,

    It’s about balance and common sense. As Mike Sansone often preaches…social media is just a medium. So if people apply the boundaries as they would to a company dinner — they’ll be fine.

    But…and I think this is where there’s a rub — it’s very easy to forget who all is listening to us.

    I suspect this is a debate that we’ll see a lot of over the next few years.

    Drew

  • Drew McLellan

    Brett,

    I know…lots of thoughtful aspects and points of view. My readers rock!

    I think that you’re right. IF and I think it is a big IF…if the employees remember as they’re about to hit post or send…the sum total of their friends, including clients, bosses, vendors, etc.

    Drew

  • Jamie Favreau

    When I use my FB and Twitter accounts I am mindful of the audience and even when I blog I take into account who is listening. My Facebook has evolved more into a business networking engine but it still has friends from high school. When I think something is unprofessional. It might be a private joke but if it is not professional enough then I don’t think the audience would understand I delete it.

    There is a blurring but you have to realize that you are a brand and if you are looking for work. You need to put your best foot forward. I guess that is how I manage everything.

    I use Myspace for purely social reasons! No one seems to be active on there including myself. So I am not worried about much there.

  • Sonia Singh

    Way late in checking back, but thought I’d share my thoughts to your questions anyway…

    My coworker was fairly understanding when I said I keep the personal and professional lives separate. Then she added me. I simply hit “ignore” and it never came up. I felt ok doing that since I had been upfront about my preferences.

    I’m beginning to question that stance though. I’m trying to build an online presence for my employer (a nonprofit) and would love to get our volunteers, staff, and their connections tied in. Seems hypocritical if I ask it of them but refuse to do it myself.

    That’s where I think the line is for employers censoring employees’ personal accounts. If my account is not tied to anything professional, then it seems like too much control to me and a slippery slope type situation. If, on the other hand, my FB is tied to my company’s FB page, then what I post personally does reflect on them. I think at that point the company has a right to ask for elimination of unprofessional content or to unfriend. But I think the key would be in offering the choice, not flat-out control.

    Murky at best indeed! Thanks for a thought-provoking discussion, Drew!

  • Drew McLellan

    Jamie,

    In the end, I think we need to realize that it is near impossible to keep the two halves of the whole separate. For most people, that means being more mindful and doing a bit of self-censoring.

    Drew

  • Drew McLellan

    Sonia,

    It’s a sticky wicket, isn’t it? In theory the “keep them separate” plan sounds good but I think it’s darn near impossible to actually implement.

    I’ll be curious to see how your experimentation goes. Come back and give us an update!

    Drew

  • Barb

    People are responsible for the consequences of their actions. Once you post something on the internet, you are giving it away. Once you do something in public, it is public. Yes, you should be fired from your job if you do something on the internet or in public that harms your company. People have been fired from jobs and judged for behavior since the beginning of time. The internet is just another place to behave. And that is my point, behave yourself. Behave yourself personally and professionally. If you need a guide for behavior, try this: If you do something you don’t want your mother to know about, you probably shouldn’t be doing it. As for your friends, they are responsible for their behavior too. Cut them out if they do not measure up to your standards. That can mean out of your internet life or your real life or both. Use common sense. Unfortunately, that is in short supply these days. If you don’t have common sense, ask a mother or grandmother to explain it.

  • Drew McLellan

    Barb,

    I love the “mom test idea.” I don’t disagree with you a bit. But, I think the kids who are growing up as digital natives are tomorrow’s employees. And they don’t think a thing about putting their whole life online for the world to see.

    Do you believe companies should have online/social media network policies for their employees?

    Drew

  • Christy

    Great talking point. I think if an employee is talking about the company (blog, tweet, etc.) in some way (financial, complaining, etc.), then the company has the right to step in – hence the need for social media guidelines, to educate employees on what isn’t allowed.

    However, I think company’s need to stay out of people’s personal lives. Read my post on social media guidelines: link to christyweb.com

    I really think this will be a non-issue in about ten to twenty years. I think it’s completely generational. The generation in high school today has grown up on social media, so having a personal life open online is nothing to them.

    Social media builds work relationships. If I see a co-worker update their Facebook status with “Drinking a glass of wine, work was awful today”, I don’t automatically read into it and think, “Wow, they are not only an alcoholic, but they hate their job!” Instead I think, “Wow, this person is human” and then proceed to ‘Like’ their status.

    I think it’s important to set guidelines as a company, but there’s no need for Big Brother mentality. Social media is here to stay, and it’s ingrained in the lifestyles of the generations coming into the workforce in the next ten years. Employers need to accept it and adjust, just like any other technology channel.

  • Drew McLellan

    Christy,

    First…your post is excellent. Thanks for sharing the link.

    Second…you may be right, that this will all be a non-issue in a decade or two. But, today as we blend digital natives and their older counterparts — it’s becoming a big issue.

    I think it’s going to put the spotlight on the wide chasm between boomers and millennials in particular.

    I think it will boil down to common sense but also, some painful lessons learned while we create a mutually acceptable definition of common sense.

    Glad to have you in the conversation!

    Drew

  • Robin

    For the last few months, I’ve been kind of stupidly wondering about this issue. It seems clear that separating work and social/friend networks is going to be increasingly impossible as time goes on. But if you friend your boss or your employees on a social network, you will automatically start to filter yourself a bit. I’d hate to see myself become an opinionless blob, but I think there is a happy medium between dropping the f-bomb and giving something an eyebrow-raise via Twitter. Ultimately, I found a great article by Penelope Trunk about the need for personal/professional transparency online. Her basic point was that if you’re acting in ways that would be offensive to your boss/coworkers, maybe you’re working in the wrong place (if such behavior seems natural to you) or maybe you need to consider why you behave that way in the first place.

    Ultimately, I think social media will end up being a bit less personal as everyone (especially the younger of us who are used to social networks being friends only) begins to realize that current, former, and future contacts – personal and professional – will judge us based on how we present ourselves online. That being said, P.T. also said that we will likely forgive past stupid moves online once we become even more hyper-connected.

  • Drew McLellan

    Robin,

    It’s quite the brain cruncher, isn’t it. You can see and argue for both sides of the coin pretty easily. But the reality is, regardless of what we want it to be…is that we are going to be judged by how we behave online. We’ll be judged by potential clients and client, co-workers, and our bosses.

    So the question is really, how do you self-monitor and as you say, somehow not become an opinionless blob.

    I read an interesting idea the other day. The author basically said…if you wouldn’t say/do it in front of your mom, you probably shouldn’t say/do it.

    What do you think?

    Drew

  • Cystic Acne

    Agreed 100%. They are brilliant at it. What amazes me the most is that they’ve been able to maintain that level of excellence long after Walt’s death.

    That’s a deeply held and understood brand.
    Andy

  • beni

    Heather,

    It suddenly feels like we are very exposed in some ways, doesn’t it? Like you, I have this crazy blend of people who are connected to me in various social networks.

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