Common Pitfalls of Social Media that Could Damage Your Professional Image
 

Anyone with a computer and a job has felt the powerful pull of today’s brave new world of “social media” including online networking sites that allow you to expand upon personal and professional connections. But, just as you would with any powerful medium, social media users should proceed with caution. The myriad of social media programs is growing every day. From blogging to linking to connecting, they all allow you the opportunity to grow your personal and professional life. But with those opportunities come risks: namely, the possibility of muddying your hard-won professional image and reputation.

While many of us are careful about projecting a polished, credible and professional image, social media activities — as their name implies — can blur the line between the personal and the professional, creating opportunities to misrepresent ourselves to potential clients, employers or colleagues.

Promiscuous Linking

You compete for the highest number of connections without regard for who you’re adding to your network.

Some people treat online networking programs like a high school popularity contest: the more connections you have, the better you must be.  But do you really know who you are inviting into your network?  If not, you may be adding someone with a less-than-favorable reputation in your community, industry or network.

And don’t underestimate the impact you might have by inviting someone who doesn’t recognize you.  They may be turned-off or just plain creeped-out.  What will their reaction be should they hear your name mentioned in the future?  As a good rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t feel comfortable calling someone on the phone, then don’t do it online.

Over-Sharing Your Personal Preferences

Your personal blog, family website, political affiliations and favorite bookmarks are all a Google-search away from the public eye.

Certainly, everyone has a right to their own opinions, hobbies and personal lives.  And social media are great tools for expanding and exploring in those arenas.  But pay close attention to how accessible your personal life is to those who are interested in you professionally.

 Are you publicly bookmarking political sites or favorite blogs on topics like addiction or depression that only your family and closest friends should be privy to?  If you deal with “third-rail” topics that you wouldn’t mention in a professional setting, make sure you keep them sequestered.  Develop separate accounts and usernames for those items that should remain personal, if not private.

“I Found You On www.IHateEverything.com”

You comment on controversial blogs and message boards, and routinely write scathing op ed pieces online, leaving your e-mail address and full name.

Consider your trail of breadcrumbs: could someone follow your comments from a polarizing blog back to your professional website or even your company’s?  How would you feel if you sat down for an interview only to see the pictures of you at your friend’s Fourth of July “kegger” printed out in front of your potential employer?

All of your online activity leaves a trail, and you should be careful where that trail leads. Once you’ve posted something, it cannot be taken back.  Even if you control the site and can delete it, you cannot control who saw it or how they might have saved that information.

Even legitimate, professionally related comments or posts can leave the wrong impression if someone reads them out of context.  Just like the person who meets you for the first time after a hideous morning of mishaps, well-intentioned people can still give the wrong first impression.

Sloppy Sites

You would never show up to a meeting un-showered in yesterday’s rumpled clothes, yet your professional sites are filled to the brim with misspellings, slang and a serious lack of punctuation.

Used for professional purposes, social media can be incredibly useful and great tools for moving you or your company forward.  If you’re using these sites professionally, make sure they represent you in the same light you strive for in your physical appearance and demeanor.  Aside from actual mistakes, also pay attention to your tone and attitude.  Sure, you may be witty, but if your posts or comments are predominantly scathing or complaining, people will assume that you’re a generally unhappy, dissatisfied or even angry individual.

Next Steps

Give some good thought to the particular programs and tools you’d like to use, both personally and professionally.  Then consider creating and maintaining completely separate accounts, usernames or other identifying markers.  Again, no one is saying you shouldn’t do all of the things you enjoy doing through these outlets.  Just be mindful of how you do it.

Even if you do your best, occasionally there will be a slip-up:  a hastily posted comment or just the right combination of search words that leads a professional contact to your personal circles.  Don’t beat yourself up too much.  Chances are, you can explain that you try your best to separate work and play, then leave it at that.

Damage Control and Image Clean-Up

Perhaps you recognized yourself in some of these descriptions.  What now?  How can you go about fixing some of these common missteps?

The first approach is also the most obvious: delete the offending material or connections.  This is easier said than done.  If you have direct access to the item, you can delete it yourself.  If someone else is in control of the content, approach them in the most polite fashion possible and ask them to remove the content.

If these fail, there are companies, like ReputationDefender and ReputationHawk, that specialize in cleaning up your online presence.  But they can be pricey, laborious and time-consuming.

In the End

 

As with nearly everything in life, social media should be used judiciously.  Don’t let yourself get too overwhelmed, but do pay attention to how you’re presenting yourself to the world at large.  And always make sure the benefits you glean from these powerful tools outweigh the risks.  Go forth and connect!