Almost every week we hear about people who have damaged their reputation because of a silly mistake made in a social media comment that’s gone viral for all the wrong reasons. Or perhaps a company CEO has made a personal comment that’s picked up by the media and inadvertently damages their professional reputation and business. Then there’s those whose personal or professional misconduct has a ripple effect on a company and its employees, investors and shareholders.
A very recent example is American political activist Barbara Ehrenreich’s attempt at what she calls “subtle humor” on Twitter. The 77-year-old author tweeted: “I will be convinced that America is not in decline only when our de-cluttering guru Marie Kondo learns to speak English”.
As people jumped on the tweet for having racist overtones, she deleted it, only to follow up with a non-apology that stoked the online anger even more. Writer Jeff Yang tweeted: “The casual and maybe involuntary xenophobia that seems to frame this tweet is painful to read”. Yet another tweet from Barbara Ehrenreich shows that she felt her remarks were “subtle humor”. Whatever the original intention behind the tweets, the damage to the author’s reputation is done.
Corporations can damage their own online reputation as can senior leaders
While it could be argued that anyone can make a slip up on social media without thinking, businesses do plenty of damage to their own reputations. In 2018, Snapchat ran an online ad based around the game, Would You Rather? The problem is, they chose to ask users if they’d rather punch singer Chris Brown or slap Rihanna.
In an obvious, and baffling, reference to the time when Chris Brown was arrested for assaulting his then partner Rihanna in 2009, Snapchat’s advert caused a furore. Rihanna herself told the app to delete itself, resulting in an immediate $800 million droping off its share price. She then went straight to Snapchat’s rival, Instagram, and posted a long statement calling out Snapchat for shaming victims of domestic violence.
Snapchat pulled the advert, saying: “The advert was reviewed and approved in error, as it violates our advertising guidelines. We immediately removed the ad last weekend, once we became aware.”
Whatever Snapchat’s original rationale behind this ad, someone somewhere made a mistake that cost the company a lot of money and, perhaps more importantly, severely dented its reputation. People don’t easily forget this sort of controversy, even in an increasingly noisy online space.
Where was the risk assessment?
A good example of a silly mistake damaging not only the person’s personal reputation, but his career too can be seen with ex-editor of Waitrose Food magazine, William Sitwell. Following an ill-conceived joke about “killing vegans” to a freelance writer pitching ideas, Mr Sitwell found his email going viral. He subsequently resigned from a job he had for more than 20 years and garnered a lot of backlash on social media. Waitrose were quick to say that the decision to resign was “right and proper”, as the company rushed to distance itself from the silly mistake.
A good rule to live by is to carry out a personal ‘risk assessment’ before pressing send on an email, Tweet, social media post or any other form of communication. Writing in anger, frustration or when exhausted can unleash a storm before you know it. Let’s take the following as an example of what can go wrong. When Marcus Wood, a director at a recruitment company, had a bad day he let his employees know.
Mr Wood’s all-staff email was leaked online, showing everyone who cared to see how not to communicate. The email ripped his staff for their attitude, what they wear and for wasting time. It also says: “5 or 6 of you are REALLY GETTING ON MY T— in this office.”
He apologised later, saying that he was not at his “loquacious best”. It was too little, far too late, however, as Twitter users commented on his leaked email with the sarcastic hashtag #bossoftheyear.
What can you do to avoid making silly mistakes?
Of course, a major company like Snapchat making such a fundamental error may seem far away from most people’s online behaviour. However, protecting your online reputation is something that should be incorporated into day-to-day working life. In today’s politically engaged online world, positing a personal opinion in the wrong place at the wrong time, could come back to haunt you and your business.
Protecting your online reputation and learning to avoid making silly mistakes starts with a sound understanding of appropriate professional behaviours online. While social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter originally began as relaxed, informal places to post your opinion, this has completely changed. The personal and professional have blurred online, and you should consider everything you post – what you say and who will see it – before hitting ‘post’.
Guarding your personal reputation stands you in good stead professionally, and while it takes time and work, it’s definitely worth it. Social media not only connects us with friends, family and schoolmates, but with colleagues, clients and potential customers. Think of your online reputation as a brand that needs as much protection as any other.
- Check your platform first
First things first, where are you posting? Is it Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram? And should this change what you say? Ideally, you should ensure that nothing you post online could be construed in a negative way by a colleague, peer, potential customer or current client.
The best way to do this is ensure that you are posting to the appropriate platform. Lock down your purely personal accounts and think hard about whether you should link with clients and professional contacts on them. Facebook now has comprehensive privacy settings that allow you to curate your feed to specific people. This is a way of maintaining separation between personal and professional online posts.
- Check your spelling and grammar
Before you post your blog to Medium, or your callout to LinkedIn, check the basics. The words you choose and how you present your communications is important. If you’re in too much of a hurry to get your voice out there, you could miss critical spelling errors and improper punctuation. Don’t underestimate how much this can put people off. Poor spelling and grammar can absolutely contribute to a negative impression of you and, by extension, your business.
- Never post professional ‘spoilers’
While most of us aren’t in the position to ruin a long-running TV show by leaking details before it airs, workplace confidentiality is vital for everyone. If you post something that’s under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA), or could be construed as private and confidential, not only will your online reputation take a hit, you’ll almost certainly damage your own career.
- Don’t comment on something contentious
It can be really difficult to resist being drawn into political debates or commenting on something shared by another person. Be aware that anything you might post can be seen by anyone. Even if you have privacy settings in place, it is possible for someone to screenshot your comment and share it elsewhere. The best rule of thumb is to steer away from anything contentious.
- Protect your privacy
As well as what you post and write on the Internet, you should check your privacy settings. Social media sites and search engines appear to be free, but they come at a cost – and that’s your privacy. Your browsing history is tracked by search engines and sold to the highest bidder to use it for targeted ads.
Browsing incognito may stop the browser recording your search activities, but it doesn’t prevent third parties from accessing them. The easiest way to think of the Internet is that everything you post, search and do is saved and archived by your internet service provider (ISP). It’s not just about protecting your reputation in terms of what you post and how it can be construed but keeping your data safe too.
Treat your online presence as if it is being scrutinised by people who matter at all times. Because it is, even when it isn’t immediately apparent. Do all of the above and you can avoid slipping up and costing your reputation dear with a silly mistake.