Every time you add or remove a post, untag yourself, or hover a bit longer than usual over the “tweet” button, you are doing something you might not have realized is your new job: Managing your personal brand. You may love this idea, or you may hate the notion that you now have a brand to manage. But you do, and — news flash! — you always have. If you can’t swallow “brand,” then swap in the word reputation. And then try to tell me it doesn’t matter.
Of course it does. It’s also nothing new: Whenever you make a choice about how to present yourself, in what you say or don’t say, at dinner or in an email, you are doing the very same thing. Social media just ups the stakes and broadens the audience.
Every individual post might not matter, but taken together, they create a pixelated digital image of who you are. So you’re wise to give pause: Maybe the thing you were going to post was just a bit too personal or risky, or raw. Maybe you don’t want that photo of you popping up in the feed because you were: drinking a beer, in a bikini, or had those horrible bangs you loved in 1985 (thanks Throwback Thursdays!). Or maybe you went to poke fun at some stupid direct mail campaign by tweeting a picture of it, and accidentally tweeted out your personal address (that was me). Oops.
Part of the issue is that it’s just so new; we’re still prepubescent at this point in our collective social media maturation. We have a new toy and we’re obsessed with it, fooling with it, seeing what it does and can do. The difference is that you don’t tinker in private but in front of anyone and everyone. You learn in public. And sometimes you learn the hard way.
And while our social media attention span is distracted and goldfish-like in duration, once you put something out there, you really can’t take it back. You and I may suffer embarrassment on a far smaller scale, compared to, say Anthony Weiner or Amanda Bynes, but it’s still our lives, and we do take a risk every time.
It’s also easy to forget just how big your network is. I have an example that doesn’t come from social media, but from traditional media: TV. My little sister Lori was on the cast of “Real World X: Back to New York” 13 years ago, and having endured months of 24/7 taping, she tells me that it’s astonishing how quickly you forget about the cameras. It becomes hard to keep track of what you said and didn’t say. Though she swore to keep mum about her ex boyfriend and other personal stuff, within a few weeks of filming, she was letting things slip she swore she wouldn’t.
So if you can wear a mic pack and step around a camera crew daily and still forget how public public is, it’s no wonder any one of us can slip up on social media, especially when we do it from our own little corner of the world.
The second issue at play is the breakdown of the line between personal and professional. Think you’re going to keep the two separate and sterile? Good luck with that. The personal is the professional and vice versa. You aren’t just a job or a title; you are a whole person, and that which makes you funny, passionate or angry is the very part that can be risky to share, but also the most powerful. Because the part of you who takes risks and has weird ideas and says funny irreverent things is what makes you real and relatable, and will make you more successful on social media than those who don’t.
Now, I’m biased. I work in media, and have both my own personal brand and a role in which I coach expert talent who are trying to stand out — for their work and their achievements, yes, but also for who they are. The people I work with are trying to score businesses and a following via their personal brands, and you can’t do that without putting some skin in the game.
It’s not enough to just be a good nutritionist or excellent fitness pro; you have to be someone memorable. You need to have something for people to connect to and with. Just as employers don’t hire resumes, audiences don’t engage in just careers, achievements or facts — they engage with the person behind it all.
So there’s the rub: Attempt to stifle or sterilize who you are on social media and risk being missed, or take a risk and stand up for what you think and believe and risk alienating, offending or simply having someone not like you. (Which is what we’re often the most worried about.)
Now I realize you may not be in the least bit interested in becoming a media personality, and are really just wondering if it’s okay to groan about your job when your boss follows you on Twitter. Fair enough. But even if you believe you just want to connect with friends or share pics of your kids, realize there is an implied consent when you post on Facebook or any other social media tool: That you’re there because you want people to see.
So while there is no hard and fast rule for what you should or should not post, there are always things to consider. There is no right or wrong; there’s what works for your brand and what doesn’t. What is hilarious for Twitter phenom Rob Delaney to post may not be such a good idea if you’re a local politician running for office.
That said, here are my guidelines.
Give yourself the billboard check. If you wouldn’t put it on a billboard in your neighborhood with your mom and your boss driving by, then you shouldn’t post it. Because that is exactly what you’re doing. Trust that gut instinct that says, “Wait.”
Check your motivation. Be honest about what’s driving the urge to say a thing, especially something you know you could regret. Are you angry? Hurt? And is posting in any way an attempt to: get under someone else’s skin, infuriate a frenemy, make your ex jealous? I’m not saying you can’t use social media to achieve your own ends, but be wary of using it to scratch an emotional itch. Because more often than not, you’re not as subtle as you think.
Think about what your posts say about you. I’m a big fan of Simon Sinek (check out his TED talk on how great leaders inspire action). He says people don’t just buy what you do; they buy why you do it. So, it’s worth giving some serious thought to what you stand for and how you are using social media to get you there. Rather than using it as a platform for mouthing off, hold yourself to a higher standard via a mission you can get behind. Bottom line, what do your posts say about you? And is it something you want said?
Friend with care. In the race to have many followers, you likely have in your cache of “friends” what we would call “mixed company.” It’s worth taking a look at who’s in the room, but also why they’re there. Of course, this is best addressed before you’re connected on social media. You may think you’re being “nice” to let everyone in the door, but you may be left doing damage control. Who do you want to be seeing your posts and why?
Case in point: Alexis*, a freelancer who used to write for me and my fellow editors when I worked at Whole Living, friended us all on Facebook. The relationship between writers and their editors is special; I’ve made many friends that way and it's that connection that makes great writing happen. But you know what wasn’t a great idea? Posting that though she had so many deadlines, F- it! She was going surfing. The decision to catch a wave was her business, but rubbing it in our faces was not a great idea. Especially when those were our deadlines she was shirking.
Don’t process pain in real time. I have taught and participated in countless writing workshops. And what I tell my students holds for you too: If you’re not at peace with a situation, you’re not ready to write about it. Being in the midst of trying to sort through your own feelings is not the right time for feedback. Trust me. Not from your teacher or thoughtful classmates — and certainly not from flyby Facebook friends. When I was going through a breakup a few months ago, I was tempted to share what I was going through in real time, but knew I was not of sound mind to do so. Instead, I waited and wrote it up later to share. In the past tense.
Just because you can share anything, anytime, doesn’t mean you should. Social media can be a powerful tool to share something you believe in, make new friends, spark ideas and conversations, and even spirited debate. But when you feel the urge to connect — out of boredom, loneliness, or just because you’re upset, opt for a private dispatch instead. Nothing feels quite as satisfying as a real-life conversation.
*Not her real name.