I’m fascinated by how many people seem to make really foolish decisions with regard to social media. You’d think these politicians and celebrities would know better because they are in the public eye, but they clearly don’t. Even high-level executives who have clearly carefully crafted a public image turn around and blow it away with an ill-conceived and often unnecessary tweet or post.
I think part of the problem is that folks think of social media as being new. It’s not, but the rules that they have painstakingly followed when creating a digital record are simply forgotten, which is why they make the mistake. Let’s chat about that this week.
The Birth of Email and Career Suicide
If you were in business when email was first born, you likely saw, as I did, that a lot of people just didn’t understand how dangerous it could be. If an employee was having an issue with their manager, it wasn’t uncommon for them to blast the manager and copy everyone in the company. Even if the company had thousands of employees who at some future point might have some say on that person’s next job, promotion, or whether they even kept their current job, they were copied. Of course, this tended to really piss off the manager who was blasted in the email and generally got HR involved in a bad way. A lot of people got fired or killed their careers with emails like that.
The email I still remember the most was one sent by a CEO who, during one Christmas holiday season, had walked through the halls and seen a couple of employees wasting time. Instead of confronting the employees, he sent out a global email blasting everyone for this behavior. My team and most of accounting were working 80-hour weeks trying to close out the year and didn’t appreciate this note. He failed the year’s internal security audit spectacularly.
Writing to everyone about anything is really dangerous.
Social Media: Email with Copy All as a Default
Most social media services, like Facebook and Twitter, aren’t really social at all. They are more like email with Copy All turned on by default. Unlike email, where you consciously have to decide to copy others, with social media you have to consciously decide to send a message to only one person, even though you are often responding to only one person. Think about it: You see a post by someone you know and comment, but how often do you think about the fact that this comment effectively goes to everyone you know and a ton of folks you don’t know? It can go viral and literally go to everyone on the service if you aren’t careful.
Now if you told an executive or a celebrity that they were going to be in front of a million people, they’d likely rehearse, think about what they were going to say or write for a long time, and maybe even request a speech or ghost writer so they looked better. But when it comes to social media, which can reach millions, they don’t think about the event the same way. They don’t take the trouble to really think through what they are doing and then make painful mistakes.
Wrapping Up: Recommendations for Using Social Media
I think the recommendation here is simple. Employees should be told that social media is like Copy All on email. Only put into it what you want everyone to see, and recognize that every time you post, it could be a career-ending event. Spend a little time thinking about whether you want to Copy All or just send a personal note to one person or a tightly controlled group. Even writing “LOL” could be problematic if it came after a note about a child’s death, racial slur/joke, or a nasty comment about the firm’s executive, strategy or execution. Before you think this could never happen to you, think about the number of racial jokes you’ve likely laughed at, the Darwin Awards and how funny they are, or how often you think your executive staff is clueless. I do that last and I work for myself. To make matters worse, we often are on social media late at night when we are tired and aren’t thinking things through. Just as you likely shouldn’t do anything dangerous when you are tired, the same rule should apply to social media.
You may have noticed that a lot of executives who once were active on social media have gone silent, and many never actually used social media. I expect that was because of a learning experience that you and your folks may want to avoid as well. Finally, while it is really funny to watch folks who should know better do stupid things on social media, trust me when I say it isn’t nearly as funny if either you are that person or are tasked with cleaning up the resulting mess.
I’ll leave you with one final interesting observation, which is that women, who tend to be more social than men, have been pulling back from social media rather aggressively. I think it is because they are better suited than men to recognize that the rewards often don’t exceed the risks.