How Much Do You Need to Share Online to Be Considered "Authentic"?
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My client, Matt, had been given the opportunity to share his journey to success with a national business journal. This would mean great visibility for him and his growing company. Excited for the opportunity, he called me to say, “Well, I guess to be totally transparent and inspiring, I need to admit that I never graduated college.” Matt is a successful entrepreneur in the cyber security field, employing many talented professionals and pioneering cutting-edge technology almost daily. Yet, to him, authenticity meant bearing all to those who would read his story.
Another client, Beth, got the diagnosis: breast cancer. As a talented mixed-media artist and professor, Beth quickly evaluated the impact this news would have on her future. Surely, this would change how her clients, students and fans perceived her. Would they pity her? Would they buy more of her work because of her possible fate? Should she now feel obligated to advocate for early detection and help women in similar situations?
Jeff, a well-known commercial real estate developer, had a risky and thrilling hobby: flying. He told me he was happiest closing deals and being in the cockpit. Jeff read anything written about aviation, devoured flying videos, tutorials, online programs and desperately wanted to engage in conversations about flying and flight technology with people around him. He seriously considered using a pseudonym and online alter ego so he could pursue his hobby without jeopardizing his career. He feared that if his clients knew of his passion for flying single-engine aircraft, they might worry about him as an investment risk and that it could seriously hurt his business.
Recently, I lost a family member I was extremely close to. His death shook me hard. As a reputation-management specialist, I, too, wondered: How much do I need to share online? Do I have an obligation to let my online world know the pain I was managing while also running a successful business? Would my clients question whether I was fully present during our work? Or would I be perceived as inauthentic if I didn’t share my grief?
Being authentic and building relatable personal brands has now intersected with cybercrime and reputation risk. Individuals often seek the help of reputation-management professionals to direct perception. Leveraging personal branding strategies can position your favorably towards an intended audience that needs to see consistency, clarity, credibility and relatability. To be relatable and credible, individuals need to share insights into who they are, what they care about and why they are passionate about the work they do.
While reputation-management and personal-branding practitioners encourage clients to be “real” and “authentic” in what they share and how they present themselves, we speak of a truth that is appropriate, consistent and reliable. More important than how much you share is that the information and insights shared add value, are appropriate for the forum and platform and can be relied upon. The goal is not to project a perfect image, but one that's consistent online and in person.
Some online users limit what they share to only the most sterilized and sanitized versions of themselves and their lives. They show their children’s perfect report cards, their dog’s photos after being at the groomers, their staged workspace (complete with awards and decorations in the background) and their career successes in humble shows of gloating. These users have created a misleading picture of their lives and may struggle to build meaningful online and in-person relationships because their brand is viewed as inauthentic and unapproachable.
Other users feel the need to let us into every aspect of their lives in order to really, truly know them. They share their disappointments, frustrations, celebrations, concerns, issues, rashes and needs with their online connections as if we are diligently reading their timelines, updates and articles, waiting with bated breath for the next post. They fill out every online survey, poll, quiz, game on Facebook, entering their personal information so we can learn all there is to know about them, not realizing how easy they make it for cyber thieves to help themselves to their identity.
Related: Authenticity Always Wins
Managing how you are perceived online should be important to us all, from the day you craft your first online profile to the day you log off for the last time. In an age of non-stop information flow and short attention spans, we can’t assume that our online connections are monitoring every post, threading together our online updates into a story that forms the tapestry of our lives.
Best practices for online positioning of an authentic personal brand suggest asking yourself:
1. What is my thoughtful rationale for sharing this information online?
Despite how much information is online, you reserve the right to keep things private if you choose. Marriage falling apart? Consider the ramifications of sharing this with online connections who could see this and feel hurt that you didn’t confide in them first. Could this news concern your employer who now worries you’ll lose focus on the key project? Or could sharing this news reassure your online contacts that the reason you’ve been distracted and short-tempered was not because of the upcoming business acquisition, but rather a personal matter?
2. Does sharing this hurt or help my position?
Think about short-term and long-term implications and unintended consequences. For instance, sharing photos of yourself smoking marijuana might be acceptable if you are an adult in a state where it has been legalized, but is it the image you want your friends, colleagues, constituents to judge you by? Could your investors question your judgement because of generational biases? Or could this attract a new audience, enhancing your business options?
3. Could someone else be hurt or helped by my sharing this?
Imagine you are readying to sell your company and anxiously share that news online. Do your business partners and employees have time to respond to the flood of attention they’ll receive? They might be hurt in the process of sharing your exciting news.
4. Does this post reveal confidential information that could hurt me?
We’ve all been made aware of technology that scrapes the internet for data that can be used maliciously in the wrong hands. Sharing your intimate thoughts, birthdate and favorite vacation spot could be used by hackers set up fake accounts in your name or corrupt your financial future. Evaluate your online content through this lens as often as possible. Today, research shows that even sharing your phone number can put you and your loved ones at risk of identity theft and fraud.
5. Do I value my privacy more than my social interactions?
Consider this scenario: You post on Facebook that your wife is having risky surgery and ask for your community’s prayers and good wishes. The next week, a job candidate interviewing at your company asks about your wife’s health and status. Creepy? Not really; you put that information out there to be found and discussed. You’ve also made it part of your narrative (who you are as a husband, business leader, team member, project manager, etc). When you choose to share, be mindful that the information can be re-shared, discussed and considered long after you’ve moved onto another topic.
The bottom line is that to build relationships, collaborate, celebrate, learn and grow together, we need to share. To be seen as authentic means you make yourself real and approachable and resist cleansing your social media of all personality, struggle and conflict.
Matt, my client who hadn’t graduated college, chose to leave his educational history out of the article. He felt it didn’t add to his story, could detract or distract from the inspiring message he crafted about building a tech startup and would upset his mother, who continued to question his choice to drop out after his sophomore year.
Beth also made the choice to keep her cancer diagnosis private, reasoning that she did not want to be defined by her health or have it impact her work or business. Her conscious decision not to share her diagnosis or prognosis with her online connections was aided by the fact that she could comfortably work around her treatment protocol and rely on close friends and family to support her.
My client who loved flying but worried about the risk it posed to his investor base chose to carefully weave his two worlds together. He proceeded slowly at first, including flying videos, and photos of him in his flight jacket and in the cockpit on Facebook. Then, on his LinkedIn profile, and later his company’s “About” page, he began sharing his passion. Some clients expressed concern over the risks to his health and portfolio. He reassured them of his experience flying ultimately found other investors who supported him more fully.
And I, after a week of mourning, posted a small but elegant tribute to my loved one online. I was hesitant to do this at first, feeling it was a family matter and I wanted privacy. Then, I chose to post the news on Facebook, where my friendships and connections are more personal. I believed it would be more inauthentic not to post it than to share with my connections what I was going through. I received many kind notes, emails, phone calls and visits. Grief is a part of life, and while I don’t dwell on my loss online, sharing it felt authentic to my brand.
As the information age moves into the data-as-king age, sharing is important to building authentic relationships. Remember to be mindful and protective of what you share, where and how you distribute your personal information and balance your transparency with your need to be perceived as credible and relatable.