Personal vs. corporate branding in the age of social media

By Jesse Wilkins posted 01-27-2011 15:51



It's the age of the Personal Brand, courtesy of social media. Never before has it been so easy to develop your own personal brand online - all you have to do is be prolific within and across social media sites. But what's that mean to your organization now - and when you leave?
This topic was especially near and dear to my heart about a year ago. I posted something on an email list about an AIIM offering. I thought the post was pretty innocuous - a couple of sentences about the offering and a link to it. I signed the message with my name, my Gmail account, and my Twitter address. Of note: at the time I was an elected director for another association within this field. Within 90 minutes I was essentially accused of everything but starting the Civil War. 
One of the significant outcomes of the next couple of days of discussion was the notion that my personal identity was inseparable from that of the Board of Directors. I enjoyed and continue to enjoy a reasonably high profile in that community and it was felt that since a) most people in that community knew me or at least had heard my name and b) many of those people would also know that I served on the Board that c) they would assume that I was speaking on behalf of the Board which d) was a bad thing generally and e) more so given the particular nature of my post.
Fast forward a year. In the Facebook era, the line between personal and corporate branding blurs because of a number of factors. In the first place, the line between work and non-work has blurred. When I'm updating the AIIM Facebook page or Twitter account from home, is that work or not? What about if I do it from my personal smart phone? What if I'm not updating anything, but simply retweeting, sharing or liking on Facebook, or forwarding to a LinkedIn Group of which I am a member? Some people choose to have a "work" account and a "personal" account. I don't like that approach because I have some contacts that fit into both categories. It's also problematic to keep the two (or more!) straight when it comes time to post something, and I certainly wouldn't want to have to post things to two or more accounts and have people follow me in multiple places depending on how many of my interests overlapped theirs. And there's a third problem that I will address below. 
Secondly, we change jobs all the time. It's pretty easy to figure out who owns @ComcastCares or @DellOutlet on Twitter; if the people who update those Twitter accounts leave those companies, the accounts will presumably remain behind. Will all the connections remain? Depends on how good their replacements are I suppose. But what about, say, "Jesse_aiim"? If I get 1,000 followers and then quit or get fired, who owns the account? Can I rename it and keep it? Would the followers stay with me knowing I'm no longer with AIIM?
Thirdly, and most directly to my point, many of these types of accounts are unofficial but official in the sense that I described in my example above. That is, I'm tweeting, and people know I'm with AIIM even if it doesn't say it on my Twitter bio (it does, but let's pretend). 
My assumption has always been that if I don't ascribe my communications to my employer, they are mine alone to own and live by. As one wag on the list includes in his signature, "These views are mine alone. They may or may not be those of any previous or present employers or clients. I don't know. If I'd asked and they'd agreed, I would have signed it "Harry Peck and Co and Glenn". Or whatever. But I haven't, so I didn't." 
Think back a few hundred years to the days of royal masquerade balls, where the tiniest mask would "hide" the identity of even the king, even were he wearing the crown above it. It was a social convention that the mask made everyone anonymous. In many social milieu we follow a similar convention by using Gmail or Hotmail accounts - if you're posting from that account, it's your personal opinion unencumbered by any employer, political, associational, or other baggage. 
It's becoming easier and easier to have a unified identity across social media sites. Many sites leverage one or more of Facebook Connect, Twitter OAuth, OpenID, or another federating mechanism to let you log into a site without having to create yet another account, profile, etc. And of course many of us use the same or a similar handle across those sites precisely so our Facebook friends can find us on Foursquare, or Quora, or whatever the next big thing is. Whether this is desirable or not is left as an exercise to the reader and the information security professional. But this does make it increasingly difficult to serve up separate personae even if you could get that "genteel anonymity" I described above. 
So what's all this mean? Well, first it means take reasonable care in what you post. There's a reason every business communications course today tells you never to send an email when you're angry - there's no calling it back once you press send. Same thing goes for social media. And a little extra civility never hurts anyway. 
Second, I think we as users of the technology have to put away the itchy trigger finger and not read into posts what isn't there. When I'm posting on behalf of my organization, you'll know, because I'll tell you. When I'm not, I'm not. Don't read into it. I *always* assume that anything someone posts is their own personal private individual opinion unless they tell me otherwise. That cuts both ways - if you share a link on Facebook to something deeply offensive, and you're the VP of your company, it may cause me to rethink my relationship with your company, but only because they hired someone as stupid as you to that position. I *don't* think that the company agrees with your post simply because you made it and without any additional evidence in support. 
The bottom line is that social technologies have significantly lowered barriers to communications and the ability to maintain larger networks of contacts. If you treat every post as dependent on the perceptions, mores, and misconceptions of everyone in every network, you'll never post anything interesting. Sometimes it really is just a post and should be treated as such. Keep it professional as a content creator, but take it for what it is as a content consumer. 

#facebook #twitter #socialmedia #personalbranding