Tweeting, posting and sharing on social media poses a real dilemma for a lot of business owner-managers and professionals who want to use online platforms to reach key business audiences.
Most of us already engage in social media at a personal level but there is a fear it could backfire on us when it comes to business.
Three recent examples highlight the potential pitfalls.
The first saw film-maker James Gunn fired as director of the lucrative $1.6bn Guardians of the Galaxy franchise when a series of his historic tweets made light of rape, pedophilia, 9/11 and the Holocaust.
In one, Gunn wrote: “The best thing about being raped is when you’re done being raped and it’s like ‘whew this feels great, not being raped!’”
Alan Horn, the Walt Disney studios chairman, said in a statement: “The offensive attitudes and statements discovered on James’ Twitter feed are indefensible and inconsistent with our studio’s values, and we have severed our business relationship with him.”
Although Gunn took full responsibility for his actions, the damage was done and he had been sacked from the Guardians franchise that has made over $1.6bn worldwide to date.
“My words of nearly a decade ago were, at the time, totally failed and unfortunate efforts to be provocative. I have regretted them for many years since.”
Secondly, in the same month, a disastrous tweet from billionaire technology entrepreneur Elon Musk saw his investors demand an apology.
Elon lashed out on social media at a British cave diver who was involved in the rescue of the young football team in Thailand.
His widely reported tweet said: “We will make one (video) of the mini-sub/pod going all the way to Cave 5 no problem. Sorry pedo guy, you really did ask for it.”
He later deleted the tweet and apologised but his shareholders and Silicon Valley analysts still called his behaviour immature and an impediment to the car company’s success.
Finally, another public figure who felt he has been unfairly publicly ostracised for his past as a shock jock gonzo journalist is educationist Toby Young.
He was forced to step down from the board of the Office for Students earlier this year after widespread anger at his appointment.
Toby talked about his trial-by-media public humiliation in a lengthy 5,500 word article published by Quillette.
“I’ve also, like James Gunn, made some pretty stupid jokes on social media many moons ago that I wish I could take back. But they’re out there, along with everything else I’ve ever written, and it doesn’t take long to find them.”
While Toby, rightly or wrongly, feels hard done by, he does teach us the first lesson about understanding social media.
Lesson 1 - everything you publish online stays with you.
Whatever you post, write or share stays with you forever. The second it appears on-screen and somebody has screen-grabbed that image, you are stuck with you’ve said. You can delete and retract but the evidence is there for eternity.
The obvious lesson is not to post anything that can come back and bite you on the bum, now or in the future.
Does that mean don’t post? Of course not. Simply think about the impact of what you’re going to say…which neatly leads us on to the next lesson.
Lesson 2 - always think about how you will be perceived.
Toby complains about how an article “was cited as evidence that I wasn’t a fit and proper person to serve on a public regulator.”
Toby might have a point but he misses a more important one: he cannot dictate how people will perceive his comments and journalism.
If you deliberately seek to shock with controversial material, people are not necessarily going to spot the nuances at work behind your words.
Again, think about how your posts will be perceived, not just by your target audience but other opinion formers too.
If you want a benchmark, think about whether your mother would like the post!!
Lesson 3 - never tweet, post or share on social media in anger.
Elon Musk’s ‘pedo’ post was probably written at a time when his emotions were running high. He probably thought he was providing a solution to a problem and was frustrated at being sidelined. No matter how annoying, he should have held back on the social media and avoided becoming embroiled involved in a personal spat.
No matter how you feel about subject, always wait before you respond. Give yourself time to cool down before you respond. Remember, the angrier you feel, the longer you should wait.
Lesson 4 - have a strategy and take social media seriously.
It sounds obvious but a lot of owner-mangers of businesses don’t even have a social media strategy beyond a ‘shop window’ presence.
However, your strategy should articulate your social media goals such as showing a) your expertise b) how you can make a difference c) you understand the challenges of your specialist niche market d) your successes working with like-minded people (your clients).
Always keep things as simple as possible.
Take these four lessons on board and free up social media to work in your favour rather than against you.