Just the other day, I was absorbing a particularly engaging post entitled “The 7 Unwritten Rules of Email” by two remarkably talented communicators, Joe Byerly and Dave Chace. While the focus of their writing was on effective and efficient use of email, it struck a chord. We can all point to times when email has been the source of conflict. At one point in my career, I was tasked to “manage” the email communication of two of my peers who routinely violated the very things noted by Byerly and Chace. Their misuse (or abuse) of email had drawn the attention of the division headquarters, and not in a good way. An eighth unwritten rule might be “Don’t add the assistant division commander to the courtesy copy line of your email when you’re drunk or angry.”
Reading those “unwritten rules” caused me to reflect on some very similar advice that I offer to leaders who are wading into the La Brea Tar Pits of social media for the first time. As with email, most of us understand the value and convenience of social media; the value to professional and personal networking is incredible. And, as we have learned with email, a few unwritten rules can save a lot of headaches.
Like email, some people take to social media easily. They communicate fluidly, their impact is noticeable, and they make the most of the experience. For many, however, that experience is problematic. An inability to differentiate between “you’re” and “your” or “two”, “to”, and “too” becomes embarrassingly obvious. A love of cats might be endearing to some, but when it becomes an obsession it can make some people uncomfortable. And, let’s face it: venting about a growing dislike for your boss or your coworkers online can lead to some tense moments in the workplace.
Why does any of this matter? Because, inevitably, personal social media use bleeds into professional life. Increasingly, what you share online influences how others perceive you; if you’re in a leadership role, probably more so. So, whether you’re building a personal leader brand or simply navigating the stickier corners of Twitter, some basic rules of professional social media etiquette can be of great use.
1. Brand matters.
In branding, consistency, dependability, and trustworthiness count. Your online professional persona should be a reflection of your day-to-day self. What you say, what you post, how you conduct yourself, and how you interact with others. Subtle differences are to be expected, but wide gulfs between the two may create confusing – and sometimes damaging – misperceptions about you. Be authentic; be you. Set a positive example for others to follow.
2. The “Mom Rule.”
Everyone knows about the “Mom Rule.” It takes on another dimension on social media, where a lot more people than just your mom might be following your conversations. The social media corollary to the “Mom Rule”: avoid posting anything you wouldn’t say openly to your leadership, in conversation with your peers, or in front of a formation. If you don’t have a “mom” filter, well… it’s going to be a long, hard road.
3. The Internet is forever.
There are no “take-backs” on social media. You can delete that post about keying someone’s car because they didn’t answer your texts, but there’s a good chance someone saw it and archived it. The same goes for those profanity-laced late-night rants about your senior leadership. Sometimes, a little discretion is a career force multiplier.
4. Maintain the “moral high ground.”
The more divided we become as a society, the easier it is to find yourself dragged into a debate with someone who pushes your buttons. Don’t. Arguing with a troll on social media is like wrestling a pig; you end up covered in mud and the pig likes it. Step away from the keyboard and give yourself time to process what’s happening before responding.
5. Crossing the streams.
Remember what happened in Ghostbusters when they crossed the streams from their proton packs? It’s always a good idea to think carefully before mixing your personal and professional networks. Do you really want the guy who bought you beer in high school swapping stories about you with your future brigade commander? Probably not.
6. Stranger danger.
Treat your network like your home. You don’t open your door to just anyone, do you? When you connect with someone on social media, it’s worth the added time to make sure that you know with whom you’re connecting. Somebody will always accept a connection request from the next Ted Bundy; it just doesn’t have to be you.
7. Check your sources.
One of the two fastest ways to be written off as irrelevant is to post “news” that is either poorly-sourced or flat wrong (the other is to violate Rule No. 8). Those memes you find so compelling? They’re distributed by Russian state media. That breaking news story about the unexpected death of a celebrity? It’s from two years ago. The announcement that Oscar Mayer is hiring a new driver for the Weinermobile? Well, okay, that’s true. If you want to be taken seriously, invest the effort necessary to ensure that you’re not alienating the people in your network with ridiculous posts. No one really wants to know which character from “Love Actually” they are.
8. The Gambler’s Code.
Any good poker player knows when to hold, when to fold, and when to walk away. The same code applies to social media: never post when you’re tired, angry, drunk, or otherwise compromised. It’s called gambling for a reason; if you break the code, you might find yourself in a world of hurt. Better to step away from the keyboard now before you wake up broke, unemployed, or alone.
As someone who has maintained a social media brand for most of the past 15 years, I’ve come to understand that there is one final rule worth mentioning. I call it “the anonymity rule.” If you choose to establish an anonymous (or semi-anonymous) presence on social media, be wary about sharing too much identifying information, especially if you use your platform in a manner that might run counter to your institutional values, policies, or regulations. There is an entire subspecies of social media dweller that exists solely to dox people who mistakenly believe that they’re more anonymous than they truly are. If you’re engaging in any way that’s remotely controversial, you can be sure that you’ll anger one of them along the way. Don’t give them an excuse to bare your true identity in a way that has damaging personal or professional effects.
I spend more than my share of time on social media, and much of what I share was learned through the pain of personal experience. Social media will continue to be one of our primary avenues for sharing information and remaining connected to others. Have fun with it, make the most of it, but be true to yourself and remember that others might be looking to you for an example. Understand how to get the most from the experience while avoiding the Tar Pits. Because once you wade into them, they’re virtually impossible to extricate yourself from.