Our Take: Social Media Lose Their Edge

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Is control over social media content inexorably migrating from individuals toward the companies they work for?

The past two months produced a blizzard of stories about social media's limitations and downsides. My takeaway from those stories is that the content of online venues such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter will turn increasingly corporate. For everyone who isn't a full-time entrepreneur or independent contractor, social media tools will gradually morph from extensions of your personal brand into extensions of your job - which is to say, extensions of your employer's brand.

If you're involved in social media now, this probably won't come as good news. Millions of individuals the world over rely on LinkedIn as both an online professional identity billboard and a key vehicle for locating and communicating with peers, prospective clients - and potential employers. First blogging, and lately microblogging (such as "tweeting" on Twitter), have emerged as efficient tools for building audiences in cyberspace for social, business and career growth purposes.

Entrepreneurs - who must practice self-marketing not as a route to the next job but as a critical facet of their current job - were among the first to recognize the branding potential within these new avenues to visibility. Now that mid-size and large businesses are catching on, they're increasingly asserting control over what employees say in online communities that participants once viewed as closed and private.

Widening Risk

"So what's new about that?" you might ask. "Managers have always been primed to punish embarrassing or controversial behavior or statements by employees - whether work-related or not. Stories about someone losing a job because a beer-party or bikini pic was found on her Facebook page are old-hat."

What's different is that employers today are raising their eyebrows at content far beyond mere digital dirt. As active social-media participants themselves, they're more likely to discover an employee's or candidate's problematic posts that might have gone unnoticed a year ago.

Consider these recent incidents:

- A Swiss health insurer fired a worker after she was found browsing Facebook while out sick.

- Cisco caught a candidate who'd just been offered a job dissing the company in a tweet. It's widely believed the firm subsequently withdrew its offer.

- eBay lawyers moved to rein in house blogger Richard Brewer-Hay, hired in 2008 to humanize the company's image through tweets and blog posts.

What It Means

The Facebook item shows you needn't disrobe or talk trash online to get fired. The hapless Swiss worker was undone simply for being present online at a time her employer felt she shouldn't be. Reuters' report contains no indication she said anything that might embarrass a nun.

The Cisco tweet, on the other hand, does constitute classic digital dirt. Still, that story illustrates that despite Twitter's atmosphere of spontaneous personal expression, professionals who wish to avoid career damage must watch their words there just as on LinkedIn or Facebook.

The eBay incident reveals the most about where things are headed, in my opinion. Because Brewer-Hay was hired to be eBay's social-media "face," no one should fault the company for influencing his content. (His new marching orders apparently focus on finance-related posts and stem from SEC compliance concerns, according to The Wall Street Journal.)

Not My LinkedIn Profile!

As more businesses embrace social media, look for corporate voices like Brewer-Hay to make up an expanding slice of the blogosphere and the Twitterverse. A likely consequence is companies will become both more aware and less tolerant of employees who post without official sanction. On business topics at least, the scope for individuality, personality, and "edge" will shrink.

A LinkedIn group for financial writing/marketing communications professionals already has a long discussion of this possibility. One member asserts there the SEC won't let registered reps include personal recommendations from others in their public profiles. Another member speculates managements might eventually assert control over each employee's LinkedIn profile - requiring the contents be approved by compliance or communications staff, as already done with speeches and other public information released by employees.

The bottom line: Just when many of us finally developed a modicum of comfort with the new world of online networking, the tectonic plates beneath our feet may shift again. And an invaluable tool for personal career management could tumble into the fissure.

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