Keep your social media past from haunting you

Taking these steps may help executives mitigate reputational risk.

Social media, a key part of the contemporary business landscape, has evolved over time. What started off as a simple way to communicate with friends and family has become an integral part of our social, professional, and economic lives. Professionals nurture networks and reputations while companies build brand and customer relationships on social media.

However, it has also become a bludgeon. Executives risk losing their jobs or suffering reputational damage for social media missteps. For many, the damage has been swift and permanent.

Executives need to take special care in this era of “weaponised” social media, but risk does not exist solely in current posting; account histories have also become liabilities.

What once may have been forgotten is now a risk, whether it is an insensitive tweet that seemed funny at the time, a former extremist political affiliation, or embarrassing photos from your teenage years. Examples abound in the media: Hollywood director James Gunn was fired for years-old tweets; a Trump campaign staffer was let go after racist Facebook posts were discovered; a CFO of an American clothing company was fired for posting about the board.

“Skeletons no longer stay in the closet,” said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, an international consultancy based in Los Angeles. “Social media is a permanent archive that can be used proactively and reactively to out anyone on any subject.”

Two experts offer tips on how executives can mitigate the risk of a past embarrassing social media post or episode becoming a career catastrophe.

Assess the risk

The first step is to conduct a thorough review of your social media past to identify potential risks, something Bernstein calls a vulnerability audit. Some risks may be obvious, like an offensive or insensitive post, and others subtler, such as a public political argument on Facebook. The goal is to find harmful material before someone else does, according to Kevin Bryant, CEO of Educated Change, a social media and reputation management consultancy based in the UK.

“If people already know what they did, that makes the job easier,” said Bryant. “What we don’t want are any surprises.”

Even if it means admitting to shameful behaviour, be brutally honest and thorough during this analysis because social media holds no secrets forever.

Assert control

No matter how much you want the problem to go away, the very interactive, archival nature of social media means that hiding is not practical.

“Anything that you’ve ever said or done that is contrary to what people expect of you will come out eventually,” said Bernstein. Once you have found, or admitted to, potentially harmful material, be prepared to release it yourself. No matter how unsavoury the prospect, the truth is always better coming from you than from someone who wants to do you harm, according to Bernstein.

He recommended hosting your own websites featuring FAQs, statements, testimonials, and the like to serve as a repository of your side of the story, and designing proactive social media campaigns in advance of the release of embarrassing information.

“The problem with anyone else’s website or social media is that you don’t control the message. You can influence the message but not control it,” said Bernstein. “There needs to be one place where you control the message 100%.”

Make sure that you are paying attention to SEO and search rankings, and look to maximise the visibility of your response. It will do you no good if the public cannot find your side of the story buried under ten pages of search results.

Get help

An executive cannot be reasonably expected to navigate the vast and complicated social media landscape alone. Even before trouble starts brewing, bring in help, Bryant said. Look for assistance across a range of disciplines as these problems can often balloon into business, legal, and career issues.

“You need the right support,” he said. “Especially at the officer-of-the-corporation level, you need a team that understands the legal, risk compliance, and communications parts of this.”

Trust your team to manage the response, even if you feel like fighting back or defending yourself, Bernstein said. Executives can often make things worse for themselves by arguing with detractors in public, and defensiveness can prolong the public’s attention.

Make adjustments

After you have made your admissions and hopefully influenced the public discourse, you will have to continuously respond to ongoing situations. Managing the fallout from a social media disaster means paying ongoing attention to what the public is saying and changing your narrative if necessary, according to Bernstein.

That means being proactive in making amends, demonstrating a changed attitude, or adding even more help.

Remember that a stain on your reputation will last forever via a simple Google search. It is up to you to manage how deep and wide that stain runs.

Think in the now

Of course, today will soon be part of your social media past. The most effective way to avoid problems in the future is to be cognisant of what you are posting now. Setting aside the obvious pitfalls of racist, sexist, political, or clearly offensive material, Bryant recommended that executives stick to posting neutral content that has been vetted through proper channels to avoid reputational risk.

“We recommend that clients stick to curated, third-party content already in the public domain,” he said. “And certainly not making negative comments about what’s out there.”

While it is difficult to predict what may be a reputational liability in the future, Bryant said there is one strategy that will always be effective.

“The bottom line is that it all comes back to common sense,” he said. “Would your content bear the scrutiny of front-page news?”

Drew Adamek (Andrew.Adamek@aicpa-cima.com) is a senior editor with FM magazine.