Something happened to all of us about four years ago. Quietly, and without our approval, a new responsibility was added to our job descriptions: brand ambassador.
It happened to each of us the first time we made a company-related post on social media. The Facebook post of colleagues at a bar after a conference in 2011. The Instagram shot of the dangling M&M’s bag in the candy machine with the hashtag “#soclose” in 2012. The tweet “Bored at work” and accompanying photo of a (legitimately impressive) paper-clip sculpture.
We were involved in acquiring this responsibility -- we practically gave our companies no choice but to confer it. But this responsibility was never agreed upon. And therefore, the ramifications of failing to meet the duties associated with it haven’t been fully considered.
It’s not like we haven’t known it was a problem. There have been many casualties.
Consider Gene Morphis, former CFO of clothing retailer Francesca’s Holdings. In 2012 he tweeted the following from his private Twitter account: “Board meeting. Good numbers = Happy Board.” Problem was, the official earnings reports weren’t available to all the investors. His tweet violated SEC rules. He was fired, even though he had only 238 Twitter followers.
Rule 1: Be especially careful in the finance world or other highly regulated fields, such as healthcare and government.
Consider the GOP staffer who insulted President Obama’s daughters, the paramedic who took disgraceful pictures of dying patients, the assisted-living employee who posted a photo of a client on the toilet.
Rule 2: Uh, don’t do that, either.
Consider Trevor Noah, Jon Stewart’s replacement on The Daily Show. Some of his old tweets resurfaced, depicting him as anti-Semitic and sexist. He is a comedian, though, and was able to recover by faulting it to the nature of the job -- a few bad jokes.
Rule 3: Your social media history never leaves you. Scrub it. Now scrub what you scrubbed.
In the social media world, we’ve begun referring to people’s “personal brands.” So it would follow that the tricky part about posting company-related stuff is combining two brands (yours and the company’s) in a kind of merger. But I believe this is the wrong way to think of it. I don’t believe people are brands. People are people. When you post about your company, you’re making your company a person, too. You’re humanizing it in ways that might make the company uncomfortable. So, ask yourself: Would the company want this information out there if the company were a human being?
Here are two scenarios:
Scenario A: You and Kyle just won the potato-sack race at the company picnic. Jenny took a video and wants to turn the part when you fell down at the finish line into an Instagram video. And you all work for a defense contractor known for secrecy, success and whatever the opposite of “wacky” is.
Scenario B: You and Kyle just won the potato-sack race at the company picnic. Jenny took a video and wants to turn the part when you fell down at the finish line into an Instagram video. And you all work for a startup that is literally named Whacki and encourages posts about company events as part of its marketing strategy.
The problem with Scenario A is that you’re humanizing the company in a way that no one wants it to be humanized. You’re forcing it to be something it isn’t. You’re embarrassing it. And it wants to leave the picnic. Now.
You have to know how you fit into your company’s marketing efforts, says Mark Burgess, co-author of The Social Employee: How Great Companies Make Social Media Work. “Maybe you work for an airline, right? And maybe you share on social media some interesting articles on different destinations or what you could do there … rock climbing, scuba diving, whatever. The point is that what you’re sharing should be about the audience and their needs.”
But what about a policy? Burgess says social media policies tend to fall into one of two categories. The first is something like Southwest Airlines’ approach, which boils down to: Employees are responsible for their actions on the internet and are encouraged not to post materials that may reflect negatively on the company.
WhoSay, a social media and branding platform for celebrities, has a similar policy. “One simple rule: Assume everyone you know will see it, and it will live until the end of time,” explains chief revenue officer Rob Gregory. “Use judgment. No one wants to see the inebriated BFF squad from 3 a.m.”
The second option is the 10,000-word policy that no one will ever read, written by a team of lawyers, that boils down to: Don’t express yourself in any way, ever. You’re not a real person. Stop being a real person!
The second works well in the short term. That’s what draconian ideas do: They eliminate conflict by destroying rights. But the first works well, too. And it works really well if the boss takes the lead. Burgess refers to this kind of boss as a social executive.
“We use the example of the player-coach model, where the social executive is not only giving the orders, what a typical executive does, but is also very involved in social, tweeting or blogging. When the employees see that … they feel great about that person, they feel great about their company.”
The other benefit is that the leader provides an example to follow. The leader’s social media presence offers guidelines and boundaries, making clear the limits of the company’s online personality and the point at which things get inappropriate.
We must, once and for all, acknowledge that our social media profiles don’t reflect only ourselves. We must acknowledge that when we post a photo of our hotel’s pool area and our bathing-suited colleagues during the team-building retreat, we are saying to the world: If our company were a person, it would be hanging out in a Jacuzzi with a Corona in its hand, yelling “Woo!”
Is that how your company sees itself?
For what it’s worth, I see your company as more: sitting in an Adirondack chair drinking an IPA, whispering “Right on.” But maybe that’s just me.
Key Technical Matters
The Twitter disclaimer “Opinions are mine alone” does not fully disclaim your ties to your company. Especially when the first thing you list in your bio is your job title.
Before posting something on social media about your company, ask yourself: If my company were a person, would it appreciate this?
You’re not harming the company when you post something that isn’t “on brand.” You’re taking away its brandness altogether. You’re “un-branding” it. In fact, you’re humanizing it. But you may be humanizing it in ways it doesn’t want to be humanized. Especially when you tweet from the restroom.