Former South African television presenter Nonhle Thema was revelling the apparent freedom her current state of unemployment gave her on Twitter the other night. “i can tweet whatever i want,” she said “NO 1 will FIRE ME or make me say sorry……LOL..FREEDOM….im FREE”.
Sadly, most of us aren’t free, and we can’t say what we like. In the era of the personal brand, how do we manage our online activities when a tweet could be a seriously career-limiting move? In a piece I researched for a print publication recently, it struck me just how challenging this can be, and how easy it is for us to get it wrong. I ended up completely paranoid after sending it to my editor, and the whole exercise forced me to revisit exactly how I manage my own personal brand online.
It’s complicated, as they used to say on Facebook. I’m a writer of the comic and the somewhat controversial — but I also have clients. Then there’s the responsibility entailed in being a social media brand ambassador for a luxury car. All of these identities bleed into each other. I consider myself a writer first, but that’s not my primary source of income. So I have to be pragmatic, and this means recognising that even if we do separate out our personal identities from our work personas (as many of us do) there will be blurring. There is no Chinese wall in the human mind.
Oh, sure, a lot of this feels contrived. We’re not brands, we’re real, flawed, messy human beings. We love social media because it allows us to express how we really feel, after all — so what happens if we no longer get to unleash the Nonhle in all of us? Self-censorship is hard work, and maintaining that inner red pen-wielding bureaucrat can be stressful.
As I’ve become more aware of who reads what I write, however, I’ve had to think more carefully about what I say. Rules can be a pain, but they can also be useful. Second-guessing yourself every time takes up a lot of energy, so these are the principles I try to stick to.
- Never say anything bad about a client, whether you work directly on their business or not. There are specific cases where I relax the rule on this one but for most part I take the view that if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything. Yes, it limits you but it also keeps things clear.
- Be upfront about who your clients are — whether you’re being paid to talk about a brand or maintaining a diplomatic silence.
- Always ask: Should I tweet this? It’s amazing how many of us forget that what we post is publicly visible. The stories I came across while researching the print piece had me shaking my head and thinking: I’m so glad that’s not me.
- It’s safer to ask if it’s ok to tweet about something. If you think somebody is joking when they say “Don’t quote me,” double-check. I’ve made this mistake in the past, and I’m much more judicious now.
- If I simply have to share the untweetable tweet, I do it in a DM, or better yet, via WhatsApp, email or good old-fashioned SMS. DMs are risky: It’s way too easy to post them as tweets. Ask Anthony Weiner.
- Bitching and moaning about work is one of life’s great pleasures, but it’s best not to do it publicly — not even on a Facebook wall. People can and do get fired for what they say in social media — it is not as private as you like to think it is.
- I avoid four letter words and religion, at least on Twitter. (When it comes to blogging it’s a different matter.)
- No drunk tweeting. I love other people’s drunk tweets — they make my Saturday night timeline so much more entertaining — but I’m wary of tweeting under the influence for blindingly obvious reasons.
- Stay interesting. Interestingness is a core driver of what people look for online. So I do express opinions, and I do stir — if I didn’t, nobody would bother to read me. PR is social media kryptonite: The moment you sound like a press release, people will switch off. Finding the balance between censoring yourself and being interesting is an art.
- This is both the easiest and the toughest of all: stay true to yourself. Partly because it’s a strain to be something you’re, partly because everything you say online adds up, which makes it difficult to reinvent or reposition yourself. Don’t forget: Your followers have short memories, but there’s always Google. The internet tends to keep you honest – if only because you have no other choice.
As one of the writers I follow tweeted the other day, Margaret Mitchell once said: “Until I lost my reputation I never realised what a burden it was, or freedom really is.” She was right: Reputation is a burden. But it’s one that most of us will have to learn to bear.