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What should you do when personal and corporate brands collide?

Should employees have unlimited access to social media during office hours? If staff have access to social media how can time spent online be used constructively for business? What happens when an employee’s personal brand becomes bigger than their employer’s brand?

Millions of previously “ordinary” citizens the world over have discovered how to leverage social media tools to publish and share content online, rapidly establishing themselves as thought-leaders in their chosen field of interest. Many of these individuals are now recognised as key influencers and are enjoying perks previously reserved for the media elite.

This personal branding trend has received more than its fair share of attention. There are also hundreds of articles written every day on how brands can build customer affinity and loyalty through engagement on social platforms, but there is a storm of conflict and complexity brewing at the point where these two trends collide.

Every single one of my clients asks me if they should open access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube at their companies. The answer isn’t a simple one, and is likely different depending on the culture of the business and limitations of infrastructure. But assuming the company does open access, and they are the kind of business that acknowledge that, whether they like it or not, employees are building personal brands on company time, there are a number of pros and cons to consider.


The first category of staff active on social media and building personal brands during office hours does so in the same industry as their employer — I’ll call these Collaborators. David Graham, a popular industry commentator and Digital Channels Executive at Deloitte SA, is well known as a thought-leader in the digital space and a great aggregator and disseminator of valuable digital insight — a lot of which comes from the Deloitte brains trust.

His efforts online not only expand his influence and network, but also build the Deloitte brand — generating leads and helping differentiate the brand in the mind of potential and existing customers. The benefits are obvious.

Some might argue that, in the social space, Graham’s brand is bigger (in terms of reach and influence) than that of Deloitte SA. This is all fair and well until David decides to leave Deloitte or gets snapped up by a competitor. What happens to his social media accounts then? Obviously he retains ownership and would take them with him but at what expense to Deloitte?

The same argument can be made for First National Bank’s exceptionally popular CEO Michael Jordaan and his Twitter account. It is so inextricably connected to and synonymous with the brand that severing the two could be disastrous to one or both. Is there a case for having an @FNBCEO handle — occupied by the incumbent fearless leader? Surely not — as much as this minimises risk it also minimises personality!

The honest truth is I don’t know the best way to handle these dynamics. They only really become an issue when the relationship between employer and employee ends and until then both parties seem happy to ride the wave without too much consideration or caution.


There is a second category of staff building personal brands on company time – those that do so in a field of interest different to that of the business they work for. I call these people pseulebrities (borrowing from @mikesharman’s phrase).

One of my employees, John Beale, has cleverly leveraged his social media profile to establish thought-leadership and influence as an expert on cars and the motor industry in general. So much so that he seldom drives the same car two days in a row as vehicle brands line up with fleet cars in the hope of a positive review or tweet. I am jealous.

Personally, I love that John is building a solid reputation for himself online. He has a natural knack and innate passion for things with four wheels – why shouldn’t he have the chance to leverage that knowledge and passion? I also believe that a company culture that provides a platform for people to grow and nurture their personal brands is a forward-thinking, progressive and healthy one.

However there is always the potential that John’s commitment to building his own brand could impact negatively on his productivity, or at some point conflict with the work he does on a client. Again, I don’t have all the answers and solutions to these challenges but I’m trying to raise the right questions.

One possible way to ensure the constructive use of social media by staff for both personal branding and company growth is to ensure that if they are online and interacting on social media that they are doing so with a clear directive.

A company I consult to decided to incentivise staff to share their online finds (articles, images, videos, etc.) on an internal network (in this case Yammer.com), and then analysed the value of their contributions by how many likes, comments and shares they generated. This analysis played a significant role when it came to salary review time.

In this way staff were online, but constantly thinking about how to source and share content that was valuable to their colleagues too. In other words, the company decided that their employee’s ability to find and share content that benefited the business as a whole made them more valuable, and rewarded them for that behaviour.

Of course, different businesses have different dynamics and this value-driven solution might not work in your environment. Comment and let us know what would, perhaps we can come up with the answers together.

Author | Mike Stopforth

Mike Stopforth
Mike Stopforth is the CEO of Cerebra, a leading strategic communications agency specialising in social media and PR for corporate brands. Cerebra’s client list includes Vodacom, Nedbank, Samsung, Toyota, Unilever, PWC and more. He is a sought-after speaker on the subjects of social media and marketing, a technology commentator for... More
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  • NickiD

    As the social media “person” in an “old-school” professional services environment, I have difficulty in obtaining buy-in from key stakeholders on almost anything digital. Are there tried and tested tricks to getting old-school to think new-school? I doubt that access to social media platforms will ever happen in my tenure in this firm, as access to even the most basic of websites is banned/restricted. It’s a challenge, to say the least. My manager is forward-thinking enough to encourage me to research innovations and share them with our team, but I feel like it’s a pointless task, when I KNOW that nothing will ever go any further than research!

  • The difficulty with that NickiD is that your “old-school” environment is looking for the business value in engaging online. Your task is to show them how being socially engaged translates into either business won or a significant increase in leads generated.

    That is of course speaking from a “marketing” point of view.

    If we are talking from a “social business” vantage point, then the argument is like you say; getting them to think “new-school” is nigh on impossible. Again this can be done by finding out what is important to them and showing how that is obtainable through social platforms brought in-house.

    Researching and using the tools within your department is a way to start showing the value without necessarily having the buy-in from external stakeholders. Demonstrate the value there; and then tie it back to their way of business thinking to encourage their buy-in.

  • Great article Mike and some valid points raised. These must be seriously considered by companies when opening social media to their employees. I read an article by one of the social medai specialists in the US recently and one thing mentioned in the article is that companies have to TRUST their employees. For the record, I have no plans AT ALL in leaving Deloitte ;)

  • There is definitely a balance that needs to be struck. Business needs to understand that there are certain trends such as “enterprise mobility” and “digital identities” which are making it near impossible to banish employees from social media platforms.

    Business needs to ensure that there are a few basic social media policies in place when they open the flood gates and allow their staff to communicate on behalf of the business in the online social environment.

    As David mentions below, there is a lot of trust involved; but that trust is both ways – the business needs to trust its reputation and content to its staff and staff need to trust the business to not exploit their ability / willingness to share content and promote the business.

    When this balance of trust and responsibility is struck; the business benefits are amplified and another facet of this debate is opened. That is; people tend to follow people before they follow brands…

  • mikestopforth

    Hey NickiD – I agree with Jonathan in the sense that demonstrating value through existing proof of concepts or case studies is the most powerful route. The challenge is that understanding the benefit of these tools requires a shift in thinking – which is not something that happens overnight!

  • mikestopforth

    Ha ha – good to know David. Wasn’t trying to start a nasty rumour ;) But yes this is increasingly a challenge that Information Age businesses need to address, and the answers certainly aren’t simple.

  • Andre Munnik (Pta)

    Very insightful. Thank you ! I am very interested in the role the social media and the Internet plays in the modern “marketing era”, and I find pieces like these very helpfull to “colour between the lines”.

    Hoping to read more from you soon !!


  • As someone who has featured @twitter-67603734:disqus in two separate columns (most notably, my Decorum Byte), I have to say that a “personal brand” employee with integrity would want to ensure a fair and equitable balance of the use of social media (especially those oriented towards the social business side of things) if, indeed, there is a leave taking.

    After all, often it’s the relationship with an exceptional social business that has allowed one’s personal brand and reputation to grow. That should be recognized. An example I can think of is my friend Sacha Chua (@SachaC) who voluntarily left IBM on the absolute best of terms, to become an entrepreneur. (There’s a mix of business and personal reasons for her decision.) Sacha remains an IBM brand champion and could/would happily return there at a later date…and I’m sure that IBM, who itself excels at all things social business, would also happily welcome her back into the fold.

    It isn’t an either/or situation, when it comes to the best companies and the best employees…..

    Interesting article. Thank you.

  • Good points! As much as corporate brands might hate it, social media by definition is almost always personal – and hardly ever corporate – and people relate to people more than they would ever relate to a company. The argument should not be whether companies need to worry about employees building their personal brand but rather how a brand contributes to the needs of consumer communities. In the New Economy, content is king and the consumer does not care whether it is David or Goliath who provides the meat – as long as the value is right. Deloitte made the smart choice of putting a like-able person like David in charge of social media and allowing him to cross-pollinate their thought-ware. By the way, when I took a straw poll at the boardroom, almost everybody associated DG with Deloitte – so where is the problem?

  • The blurring of lines between personal and professional social media accounts is becoming more and more of a challenge from start-ups, SME, SMB to Enterprise sized brands. Great post Mike and good comments from David and others.

    Unfortunately, Facebook forces some of this – its roots are in “Fan Pages” and this necessitates brands, companies and individuals to build a personal Fan page and a Company page simultaneously. The confusion is exacerbated by Facebook’s developer and applications which in many cases don’t work for Company Pages (Pinterest and Twitter apps come to mind), just Fan pages. Facebook and LInkeIn need to develop better tool sets and applications that are “siloed” individually for individuals and brands.SlideShare (owned by LinkedIn) comes to mind as well; i.e. content components and social media account linkage is not clearly articulated.

    The lines of social profiles are blurring and the ongoing winds of change impacting individuals make it challenging to retain brand and personal authenticity across the social web and career changes impact who owns the content and what will happen to legac content that has been created in the past.

    Some of the offsets are easy – many individuals create personal accounts across the social web and just share content that is clearly articulated from their personal brands. But, this forces an individual to manage multiple accounts and this can be time consuming and not as productive as building a social brand identity that encompasses a business and personal brand.

    I don’t know if there is an easy solution for this merging of profiles, content and platforms for individuals and brands. Corporate entities are starting to articulate clearly defined social rules and regulations for teams; but, this is much more challenging for smaller brands/companies that don’t have the resources to develop social media account guidelines.

    It’s much more of a chaotic situation for smaller companies – especially those who are using agencies and marketing services providers build social accounts and then managing the account moving forward.

  • Mike, I enjoyed your post and the intelligent comments. In a nutshell your post is the conundrum faced by any organization that wants to be a social business. Being a social business is much more than giving employees access to social media while at work.

    While none us was in the workforce when the telephone first became available. Can you imagine the discussions in board rooms? “We can’t give every employee a telephone! What if they call a customer and say something that will hurt our business?!!”

    The same anecdote applies to when email first became available in the 1980s.

    A social business is a culture shift. The social media technology element is merely an enabler. Without the culture shift, all the risks you point out are very real risks. But, like the example of Sacha Chua who left IBM and would be welcomed back if she chose to return, that is only possible because IBM has a social business culture. This is where businesses need to get to. It will take a few years. But, we’ll get there. Just like the telephone did.

  • I like the telephone and email analogy Bernie. Spot on!

  • mikestopforth

    Thanks for your comments Judy, and I agree. Unfortunately things aren’t always as clear cut though, and social businesses and employees with true integrity and balance seem somewhat in the minority!

  • mikestopforth

    There is no problem Nikolaus, if everything stays as is. But if David had to leave, what would the implications of the current association with Deloitte be on Deloitte and David’s brands respectively? That’s the question I’m asking. Also, not every organisation mandates social employees with taking on the responsibility of being an influencer or thought-leader – sometimes this happens organically, and the company is required to react.

  • mikestopforth

    thanks for your comment Bergie – one point of contention though: Email and telephones, although they share many characteristics in terms of disruption and adoption with social technologies, never in and of themselves offered employees the opportunity to build personal brands and influence (potentially) millions in the process. That, as we’re discovering, is almost entirely unchartered territory!

  • NickiD

    Thanks Jonathan (PS: we were in high school together!) and yes, my current mantra is “show them what works” … much like “build it and they will come” :)

  • NickiD

    Definitely not expecting a shift in thinking at all … it would be setting myself up for disappointment! Working on showing them what works, through testimonials from the key-stakeholders who are “getting there” in terms of embracing social. One small step at a time!

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