Separating Personal, Professional Social Media Interactions

By Jason Menard

Social media in the workplace is in its infancy and, as with any developing industry, it’s undergoing some growing pains.

Earlier this week, someone that I follow on Twitter posted this message: “If you don’t trust your employees to communicate with good judgment, then you have a hiring problem not a social media problem.”

I’ve heard variations of this a number of times, in a number of forums. It sounds nice and all – it’s certainly all-encompassing, inclusionary, and empowering.

It’s also wrong.

Social media, whether it’s a blog, a Twitter feed, or a Facebook page, is open to everyone – and that’s a good thing. But just because everyone can blog doesn’t mean everyone should blog. At least not when it comes to corporations.

In general, you should only hire employees you trust. That’s just good business practice. But when it comes to social media, most companies only choose a handful of people to represent them on-line. It’s not about controlling the message, but rather it’s important to not oversaturate the market with redundant messaging.

Just because everyone can use social media for business, doesn’t mean they should. To be effective, you have to be able to balance your business goals with the ability to provide entertaining, engaging content that encourages people interested in your business to return. It’s not about parroting press releases, it’s not about selling non-stop — it’s about finding a way to humanize your company.

The days of the nameless, faceless corporation issue press release after press release are over. Thankfully. Yet the future of social media, as it pertains to business, is still a question. You will read several so-called experts who say that the company’s top executive should blog. You will read here that I don’t agree with that.

If your top executives are committed to social media, that’s a good start. If they’re doing it because they’re ‘supposed’ to, that’s bad. Personality is important. If your CEO can write an entertaining and relevant blog, great. If it’s riddled with biz-speak and parroting the corporate line, what value are you adding? If your social media representatives are nothing but glorified press releases, then stick to the press releases.

For companies who are looking to reach out to new and existing customers, social media can be very powerful. Yes, we’re still in the media’s infancy, but already you can entertain yourself with a variety of jargony biz-tech buzz words like reach, engagement, metrics, influence…

But when you strip away all the big words, what you’re left with is pretty simple – a network of friends sitting around the virtual coffee table, sharing their thoughts and feelings, and offering advice to people they know.

Word-of-mouth marketing is one of the most powerful ways to influence one’s behaviour. If your close friend had a good experience with a company and shared that with you, you’re more likely to shop there yourself. Conversely, if you’ve had a bad experience, you’re likely to share that with your friends, family, and contacts in the hopes of influencing their behaviour by warning them away.

Social media? It’s no different – other than the fact that you can reach more people, more quickly with each message. And that’s why smart companies are turning to Twitter, Facebook, and the like – the conversations are happening out there, so you want to make sure you’re participating. At the very least, you should be monitoring what’s being said. And in the best-case scenario, you should be interacting with people.

But should everyone that’s working for a particular company be expected to be an ambassador for that company? Just because someone works somewhere, does everything they do socially, personally, and recreationally have to be a representation of who signs their paycheques?

We all have our own opinions and beliefs when it comes to politics, religion, community, and values. Some of those may be shared by the corporations we work for — others may not. I’m not defined by my company, nor do I have any illusions that I define who they are.

While, I am largely responsible for the social media interactions in which my company engages, I do so within a framework established through mutual negotiation, discussion, and a desire to further business goals. Sometimes the planets align and everything works out — other times, our views on social media differ. In the end, as a responsible employee, you try to find a way to best service your employer without contradicting your ideals. In the end, I insist upon being open, honest, and transparent — I’m not going to sign my name to a lie, nor do I think that deceiving our customers is good business. Fortunately, I haven’t been asked to do that.

I enjoy my role and work hard to do a good job. But any trust I’ve earned as a quote-unquote brand ambassador is earned. And it’s a role that I’ve been asked to fill. The other employees in our company? If they choose to Tweet about our company, or post something on Facebook, then that’s their prerogative — they’re not forced to do so, nor should they be expected to do so.

Just as bloggers need to take a crash course in libel and basic journalism, so too do employees need to realize that they can be held accountable for their Facebook posts and Tweets. If you libel your boss on-line, don’t be surprised to get fired. If you share business secrets without authorization, don’t expect to be treated any differently than if you passed those on to the competition.

But if you want to post your pics from last night’s party, that’s your prerogative. As long as you’re not doing it on the corporate blog, your company shouldn’t care what you do in your free time.

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