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by Aman Singh Das | June 17, 2011


In light of the scandal around Congressman Weiner’s social media ‘activities’ which lead to his resignation, many are questioning why a high-ranking and prominent person would endanger his marriage and career in this way. Perhaps the more important lesson to take away from this situation is the powerful potential for social media to build, or destroy, a personal brand.

Your social media presence is your personal brand. Like it or not people judge you by the clothes you wear, the clarity and authenticity with which you speak and, increasingly, the tweets, posts and photos you choose to share on line.

The phenomenon is not new.

Stories abound –some real, some manufactured – that point to some ill-timed or 'thought the microphone was off but it was still on' mistake that ended (or made) a career. A few choice words can define you. Ronald Reagan credited his defiant 'I am paying for this microphone' when the moderator of a debate for New Hampshire primary in 1980 instructed the sound controllers to turn it off with helping him win not only the debate, but the nomination (and the White House). The sound bite was certainly memorable and helped define his persona as someone who would not be bullied or silenced.

Thirty years later, the video has more than 62,000 views on YouTube. If it were to happen today, it would be tweeted nationally and internationally.

A few ill-considered words can also define you.

During the worst oil spill disaster in history, one that cost 11 people their lives, BP CEO Tony Hayward infamously stated "I'd like my life back." His termination was announced soon after.

Note that each of these remarks is far shorter than the 140 character limit on Twitter.

I cannot help but wonder what pictures, tweets and videos our future presidential candidates and business leaders are currently posting. And if they're even thinking about what those images and words will say about them. Are they relying on the discretion of their 'friends' 'fans' or 'followers'?

Don't Assume Privacy

Years ago, I shocked a senior executive of my employer at that time by informing him that the entire Best Practices Manual that we had spent countless hours – and dollars - preparing for our operations—and distributed through careful means—was 'one Xerox machine away' from being in the hands of our competitors.

Similarly, people are surprised to discover that their privacy settings do not assure them that their carefully 'controlled' social media presence is not being viewed by people that they have not intended it for.

A while ago in an interview on sustainability, the reporter asked me questions designed to determine if I was, in fact, living the values that I was espousing. I pointed out that, as an example, I had a rainwater catchment system installed at my home. At the time, I didn't mind the question, and even encouraged him to check the internet because I had sent pictures of the installation to the manufacturer.

But I was a bit uncomfortable when he informed me that he had, in fact, seen the rain barrels by checking my home on Google Maps.

The Internet is Forever

Sometimes we think better of something we've said or posted and we hit 'delete.' But nothing is ever 'deleted' on the internet. Even after your original tweet is deleted, for example, the retweets continue to live on, with your username attached. Pictures you posted of your last vacation may show up in places you never expected, as people search Google for images.

That means, as much as you'd like to recall that message or remove that posting, it may be too late. Even if your privacy settings are the most restricted available, are you sure all your Facebook friends have done the same? Even if your passwords are the most improbable and difficult to guess, are you certain that everyone with who you correspond has been similarly judicious?

The recent news of Sony Play Station accounts being compromised only serve to give further pause.

[Slideshow: Top 10 Twitter Firings and Fallouts]

Be Prepared

Being aware of the dangers are critical for anyone who wishes to be an effective manager of their personal brand and especially for those who specialize in corporate responsibility, CSR and sustainability.

For example, I make sure certain key points are suitable for tweeting in every presentation I prepare. By preparing my remarks in such a way that certain key points are ready for social media – both in content and in length – I'm controlling what is sent out.

Don't Panic

This is not meant to make you throw away all of our devices and give up on social media.

Rather, take advantage of the tremendous opportunity for personal branding that social media represents. All that is required in this new interconnected world is a certain level of understanding and the appropriate preparation.

Presence on social media comes down one core understanding: Don't put out anything that you wouldn't be comfortable seeing again one day. And if you are someone who has grown up with technology as a trusted means of self-expression, this can prove to be a hard but achievable exercise.

Don't Be So Critical

Adapt our expectations.

After all, a picture of someone dressed up for Halloween doesn't instantly disqualify them from being the best choice for a job, a promotion or even to hold political office. After all, we've all made mistakes. The internet just blurs the line between 'public' and 'private' and that’s where the challenge – and the lesson – is.

Now, what if all our good deeds were to last as long – and be as tweetable – as our mistakes?

--By John Friedman, CSR-P

John Friedman has more than 20 years' experience in internal and external communications and a decade in the area of corporate responsibility and sustainability.His background includes developing and implementing effective and award-winning programs that maximize stakeholder engagement, community relations, organizational development, change management, and strategic philanthropy.Recognized in 2010 by Fast Company's Brandfog blog as a thought leader in CSR, John’s insights on sustainability, strategy and current events are a regular feature on Sustainable Life Media. He is also cofounder and serves on the board of directors for the Sustainable Business Network of Washington (SB NOW).


Filed Under: CSR