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Facebook carefully: Protecting your personal brand online

I have little doubt that when Christine Rubino, a seasoned junior-school teacher in Brooklyn, New York City, made public her acute frustrations with her fifth-grade class, she had no conception just how far reaching a single Facebook update could be.

The Brooklyn community had only recently faced the death of a 12-year-old Harlem schoolgirl who, caught in an ocean rip current, had drowned on a class outing to the beach. A day later, Rubino, clearly referencing the event, posted, “After today, I’m thinking the beach is a good trip for my class. I hate their guts”.

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A colleague and Facebook friend of Rubino’s, clearly alive to the sensitivies around such an update, swiftly took her aside and cautioned her about venting these kinds of frustrations on a social media forum. Or at least that’s what should have happened. Rather, in a way that would do any fifth-grader proud, Rubino’s colleague promptly tattled to the school administration. Rubino now faces a bevy of formal hearings that could well result in her termination.

Events like these seem to be emerging in all kinds of contexts around the “digisphere”. What happens online can now easily spill over into offline life, so much so that it’s fast becoming redundant to even conceive of an online/offline divide in the first place. We put things out into the digital ether consciously knowing that, like a radio, they’ll be received by anyone who’s tuned in to listen. And while it’s tempting to use Facebook or Twitter as a kind of social media therapy it can wreak potential havoc on your professional life.

If that’s not enough to make you tread carefully, consider 24-year-old English teacher Ashley Payne who was sacked for being a bad influence on her students because a photo of her was tagged on holiday holding a pint in one hand and glass of wine in the other. Despite her page being marked as private, the photo was leaked and a school parent lodged a formal complaint with the educational board. Payne was fired, despite the fact that she was neither on the job nor in the company of students; she was, for all intents and purposes, on her own time and dime.

It’s a fairly sober slap-in-your-face reminder that social media makes it tricky to enforce distinctions between private and public, despite the ostensible assurances of Facebook’s security and privacy settings. Sadly, the grim politics of networked technology means that yes, there are people out there waiting to catch you out – they may only be the friend of a friend of your friend but they’re there, and what you may consider innocuous can to them be offensive in equal measure.

A friend of mine who is very much invested in the uses of social media as it applies to web public relations and online brand reputation management said that his agency had recently issued firm guidelines as to the limits of what its employees could post on Facebook and Twitter. “Make no mistake,” he said, “a business will leave you high and dry if you threaten its client and stakeholder relationships because of your own careless remark online.”

Are you ready to close your Facebook account, cancel your internet subscription and migrate to a digital no-mans-land? You don’t need to. But you need to be circumspect about the kinds of comments you’re posting. Cameron Riley would, I think, agree. He was recently barred from participating in the Scots Guard parade that will soon line the route of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding procession on Friday. This came after Riley referred to Middleton as a “stuck up cow” and a “posh b****” on his Facebook account. The Ministry of Defence stated that “in view of the nature of the allegation, it would not be appropriate for the individual to be on parade for The Royal Wedding.”

These stories all bear testimony to the need for crystal clear social media policies so that employees know what’s appropriate and what’s taboo in any given context. Whether this should be self-regulated by discrete corporate entities or centralised under national law via the legislature is up for debate. But it’s a debate that needs to be engaged in, because it grapples with many overlapping legal and ethical principles that profoundly affect the way we communicate online. Go tweet that instead.

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