Industry experts agree that communications practitioners must exercise caution with their personal social media accounts, but there's no consensus on whether agency staffers should tweet about client business.
The openness of social media relaxes many users, but it is important to be mindful of professional commitments even on personal channels, says Rob Longert, senior digital media strategist at M Booth.
“It's much like being a politician,” he explains. “You never let your guard down and you never do something that you wouldn't want people to see. Social media profiles tell a story of who you are.”
Even among communications professionals, social media blunders happen. Earlier this week, a graduate trainee at Hill+Knowlton Strategies in London sent a tweet that insulted The Guardian's TV critic, who, it turns out, works with the agency. The trainee kept his job, but his error again raised the question of how PR pros should manage their online presences. In 2009, a Ketchum executive made waves when he tweeted negatively about Memphis, TN, the hometown of client FedEx.
Longert still builds his personal brand on social channels, including Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, but his golden rule is to never post anything “you wouldn't want your mom or grandma to see.” He cautiously posted a video of himself doing stand-up comedy on YouTube and he cleaned up his Facebook profile when he entered the workforce to appear more “adult.”
Outside company channels, M Booth allows its employees to post about client work, as long as they're transparent about it. On Twitter, M Booth employees use the hashtag #client for client-related tweets. However, other firms, such as Chandler Chicco Companies, discourage staff from discussing client work on their personal outlets.
“You should try as much as possible to not tweet about work for clients because you never know who's reading it and how it will be received,” says Ritesh Patel, digital and social evangelist at Chandler Chicco.
Patel mostly limits his personal social media activity to building thought leadership – in his case, posting about the digital space. Following that strategy can help on a professional level, too, he says.
“Employers are looking at all publicly available social media info,” Patel explains.
He avoids sharing negative opinions on social media unless they build on his thought leadership, he says. For example, he recently tweeted that RIM, the maker of BlackBerry, had “missed the boat” in the tech industry. Yet Patel notes that he makes an exception to these rules when tweeting about his favorite sports team, London's Tottenham Hotspur football club.
Some communications executives have attempted to draw clearer distinctions on using personal channels to help employees avoid social media missteps. Andrew Bowins, SVP and external communications group head at MasterCard, set up two separate Twitter handles: @MasterCardAndy and @AndyBowins. On the former, he strictly speaks in the capacity of a MasterCard representative, with the goal of creating professional dialogue with other industry executives, he says. Still, he sometimes brings up topics relevant to his company on his other Twitter handle and on Facebook.
“Be yourself; don't change your brand; don't hide who you are; but don't do it recklessly in the story you're going to tell,” Bowins advises.
Most communications executives say different rules apply to different social media platforms. Facebook is for connecting with friends, LinkedIn is a professional network, and Twitter is primarily a broadcasting mechanism, Patel explains. But professionals should “use common sense” on all of those platforms, he adds.
The content shared on social media is more permanent than many think, says Sree Sreenivasan, professor of digital media at Columbia University. He cited the Library of Congress' agreement with Twitter to archive every public tweet.
For that reason, Sreenivasan says he spends three to six minutes composing every tweet, and he urges his students to consider the opinions of their employers, families, and followers before posting anything. PR professionals should consistently practice social media skills to better help their clients with the medium, he says.
“You're an ambassador to your client all the time,” Sreenivasan adds. “You can have fun on [social media], but that's not the main aim of it. It's a place of business.”