Why You Should Keep Personal Social Media Use Professional

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Online privacy policies, especially with respect to social media sites, have redefined the word ephemeral. Just when one thinks they have successfully navigated the complexities of properties such as Facebook, new “terms of use” are introduced for review and agreement.

The most recent example was Google’s early November introduction of “Shared Endorsements,” meaning if one has a Google+ account (and many do without realizing it), and they “+1” something (the G+ equivalent of clicking the “like” button on Facebook), their name and picture may appear in an ad endorsing a product or service. One is automatically opted in and can only opt out after poking around in settings. The bottom line is that for anyone, but especially for professionals, knowing both the scope of what is being shared and the impression left via an online presence is crucial and often unexplored terrain.

Tracking a Public Profile

It is important to begin the process of curating one’s online presence by first putting together a “briefing document” on what has inevitably already been revealed online.

Google

Start by Googling your name. Add geographic parameters to narrow down the results. See what comes up and start clicking through to determine what each site reveals. An important caveat is to be careful to only click on trustworthy sites. (If unsure, search the site’s name and see what information about it is available.)

Facebook

Google will likely show a link to Facebook near the top of the results. Log out of Facebook and click the link to reveal what the public sees. Facebook’s privacy settings, while a labyrinth, do allow one to limit severely the information shared. Some might not want a publicly facing profile and that is perfectly acceptable. The reality is that most users never take the time to consider what they are actively broadcasting to the world — from the political (e.g., “Obamacare sucks!”) to the personal (e.g., an awkward family photo posted for “Throwback Thursday”).

Twitter

More than Facebook, users think they can create “masked” Twitter accounts and vent without revealing their identities. While this is possible, many times the tech savvy can easily connect the dots. Even with a private account, one’s avatar (e.g., the NFL cheerleader) remains public and their followers can retweet protected messages.

LinkedIn 

Signing up for LinkedIn, while not a difficult process, takes a small amount of dedicated time. Many have gone through the first steps of registering for an account (perhaps prompted by the deluge of requests to “connect”) but have failed to build out their presence. This has created a virtual army of zombie LinkedIn accounts, the walking dead staggering along with incomplete information, previous firm affiliations, misspellings and other grammatical faux pas. Despite their poor quality, Google still displays these accounts prominently in search results.

Oversharing

These hyper-connected, always-on times provide incredible benefits that are tempered by very real risks. The concept of going home, closing the front door and retreating to the “privacy of one’s home” has changed dramatically and will only accelerate as younger generations enter the workplace. The water cooler has morphed into Facebook and Twitter feeds. For instance, as the “Breaking Bad” finale aired, more than 1 million tweets entered into the ether.

This is why, to the extent possible, personal public-facing accounts should be pruned of any posts of a political, sexual or profane nature. Beyond this, posts with the potential to inflame or irritate potential employers or clients should be removed, as well. It is fine to show some personality and humor on a public-facing account, but one should always — before posting — run the content through a personal filter that asks, “Does this complement my professional Web presence?”

As previously noted, photos present an additional area of concern. For instance, a day at the beach, while fun, can lead to swimsuit shots or other unflattering content (e.g., asleep on a beach chair, mouth agape with terrible sunburn) that is most likely not what one wants clients (even the friendliest of clients) to see. Also, be aware that with a profile set to be largely public, users can “tag” an individual in photos for the world to see — unless one has taken the time to apply an “approve tags first” setting.

Oversharing is a notion to be considered. While one might be thrilled to have purchased a Groupon for reflexology, it may be wise to resist the urge — and the chipper suggestions from the site of purchase — to publicly share this find on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Such information is likely more than anyone needs to know and reflects poorly on one’s personal brand.

Curation

With the Internet constantly in one’s pocket, it is difficult — if not impossible — to stay offline. While it’s not the case that everything done on the Internet is entered into the public domain, more is than most realize. Privacy settings, while tedious, are important. Both for an individual’s personal development and an organization’s brand, it’s critical that regular social media audits be conducted.

With a well-thought strategy, one can effectively employ social media for both personal and professional benefit. A sample game plan for the most popular properties follows:

Facebook

Be friends with family and close friends. Share the beach photos with them. Utilize privacy settings to severely limit one’s public profile.

Twitter

Keep a public profile with an avatar that has zero chance of offending. Run all content, including followers, through the does-this-look-professional filter. Be strategic and tasteful when tweeting. If comfortable, use Twitter to enhance personal marketing efforts (e.g., “Check out this article on indemnity that I contributed to The Law Journal).

LinkedIn

Simply put, this site is too important to be ignored. Take the time to create a full profile, complete with a professional photo. Connect with colleagues and clients. Use this vehicle to amplify marketing efforts through strategic updates to connections.

All Other Sites 

With sites such as Instagram, Google+, Pandora, Goodreads, etc. be mindful about what is shared and said. Explore your privacy setting in-depth.

With most online engagement, assume modest privacy, at best.

Life Online

Opposing counsel, employers and clients all Google. By combing through the information that seeps out from one’s personal social media accounts, a fairly complete profile can often be created. Hobbies, political persuasion and other interests can all be deduced.

These are interesting times and should one find themselves in the spotlight, every scrap of online information will be pored over extensively. While that scenario may be extreme, a well-curated online presence is critical for reinforcing one’s credentials and public image, for connecting with the next generation of decision makers and for interfacing for business development purposes.

This article originally appeared on Law360 on Jan. 8, 2014.