Well, maybe the Director of the CIA is a bad example but it does show that managing an online profile and a professional reputation is very difficult in this new world of online social media and the digital global village. Many people bemoan the fact that your personal life can be so easily exposed and what many consider private conversations can be so public. It is true and in spite of warnings for at least the past 20 years to not put anything in an email that you would not want your Mother to read on the front page of the New York Times many people do just that and are shocked when their private emails end up on the front page of the New York Times. Not only is it fairly easy to find salacious tidbits and scandalous gossip online, with Facebook and Twitter the news spreads faster, is distorted quicker and travels further than at any time in history. No wonder many are reluctant to get involved, especially if your reputation is important to your business or career. Many people I talk to balk when I say that because of their business they have to get involved with social media and need to maintain a good online profile. “No way,” they say to me, “did you see the ‘Social Network?’ Nothing is private anymore.” Perhaps we should put this into perspective.
The last 100 years or so have represented a brief period in history where people could live a private life and a public life. As Billie Holiday used to sing:
If I go to church on Sunday
And I shimmy down on Monday,
It ain't nobody's business if I do.
When we look back at the idyllic village and small town America of the 19th century we often extol the independent small businessman and the local shopkeeper who knew their customers and provided for their needs. We envy the farmer who worked hard then helped his neighbor raise a barn or the friendly cop on the beat who knew everybody’s name. Many people have compared the new online digital village to this romantic, neighborly past. That may be an over simplification but unlike the mass businesses of the 20th century today’s online businesses can better connect to, know and cater to their customers. For more about this read my blogs about Seth Godin’s new book, “We Are All Weird,” and What Seth Godin’s “Weird” Can Teach Us about Social Media Marketing. The down side of the personal relationship of the villages is that everybody knew what everybody else was doing. If the blacksmith’s assistant kissed the farmer’s daughter behind the barn you can be pretty sure everybody in town knew about it. The new world of online commerce and community also brings a transparency that many of us are not used to. What should you do about it?
Well, first off, you need to be more realistic about your expectations. If you want to be able to reach a wider market online in a personal way that connects with your customers you need to be prepared for a certain level of transparency. If you are trying to be an alternative to impersonal mass marketers and opaque large businesses then embrace the opportunity for transparency and connection. If your personal beliefes and actions support your business and connect with your customers then shout it from the roof top and tweet till the cows come home. If your personal believes and actions do not mesh with your customers’ then be a bit more discreet.
Being discreet means you need to be more careful online. Now I want to go on record as one who really doesn’t care what someone does in their private life. That is their business. I also believe in free speech. I think anyone can say what they want as long as it does not harm another person. Does that mean that I think anyone can and should say and do anything they want? Well it depends. If you are trying to earn a living online and your business or career depends upon your reputation, then yes, you need to watch what you say. As one online business person told me, posting political or religious opinions on their Facebook page would be like a shopkeeper putting a sign in their window that said: All Welcome except Democrats and Methodists. Why turn away business when that business has nothing to do with personal beliefs and politics?
If your doing business online or if you represent a company or organization and you are active online you need to be careful, even with very personal matters like our friends in the CIA. Monitor your business, your name and your reputation online and avoid giving others the ammunition they need to make your life difficult. For some more information take a look at some of my past blogs on how to maintain your professional online profile.