Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Working from home - how your personal tweets have professional implications

Last year, a study by an American firm found that 40 per cent of updates on Twitter were 'pointless babble'; tweets about visiting the dentist or what someone had for breakfast - those updates with no 'substantial' worth (Although good dental hygiene and a healthy balanced diet are both very important).

As you'd expect, some proportion of this 40 per cent feature some sort of personal opinion: judgements, sentiments, thoughts.

Indeed, companies spend millions each year in order protect their brand reputation from these sorts of opinions. Tweet about a bad dining experience and you'll likely get a grovelling message from the establishment in question. Pass judgement on a new fashion line and the store account will usually get back to you. You get the picture.

We all have opinions and we all like to share them. Particularly if they're opinions about your job.

Had a bad day at work? Co-worker smells funny? Hungover?

Share it on Twitter. These people did:

"Dude, I'm not going to work with a hangover."
"I'm home. Went to work. Did no work. Got paid."
"Stupid bored at work.. only an hr & 30 min left though."

Suppose for a moment that these people had previously identified themselves as employees of a particular company (via a tweet or personal biography).

You can see the complication...

Obviously, companies don't want customers finding out that the staff is uninspired, unmotivated or still drunk from the evening before. It reflects badly on their brand, their customer service and the ability of the HR department to hire well-rounded individuals.

And even if the staff aren't slagging their company off after-hours, would firms still need to be concerned about their social media activity? If an employee has 'outed themselves' as a staff member, would their (ill-informed) opinions, (negative) sentiments or (lewd) comments be connected to the brand?

And crucially, would someone be less inclined to hire an agency based on their staff's personal opinions?

Apparently, yes.

Take this from the Yahoo! guide to the personal use of social media (blog guidelines in this instance):

"All Yahoo! employees can be viewed (correctly or incorrectly) as representative of the company, which can add significance to your public reflections on the organization (whether you intend to or not). Yahoos who identify themselves as Yahoo! employees in their blogs and comment on the company at any time, should notify their manager of the existence of their blog just to avoid any surprises."

The BBC take a similar stance in their social media policy:

"When someone clearly identifies their association with the BBC and/or discusses their work, they are expected to behave appropriately when on the Internet, and in ways that are consistent with the BBC’s editorial values and policies."

In a nutshell, if you're 'outed', you've got a responsibility to the company to act responsibly.

Amber Naslund, the director of community for Radian6, wrote an interesting piece for Brass Tack Thinking which highlighted the problem for 'outed' employees on social media. In her blog post, she wrote:

"You’re now a representative of that brand, publicly. The lines start to blur between what’s personal and what’s professional, and all the disclaimers in the world won’t always mean that you can or should post whatever’son your mind. The personal and professional profiles you keep might be and feel physically separate, but Google doesn’t know the difference, and sometimes, neither do your customers."

If you're prone to swearing, this is not an insignificant problem.

Amy Dutton runs the social campaigns for Thames Water and, as an active social media user herself, she says she is aware of the crossover between her professional and personal Twitter account.

"I am very careful not to comment negatively on issues/news that are associated with the water industry. I state in my bio that my tweets are my views and not Thames Water's...We don't have a formal social media policy but we all know not to be too negative or outraged about things on personal accounts."

"Most of my followers know who I work for...some of my followers I actually gained through my association with work and will now often tweet good things on our behalf."

This benefit is reflected by Dominic Conlon from Manchester advertising agency Head First.

"We do that [personal promotion] for some of our clients - even pushing campaigns that we didn't do because we like/believe in the product," says Dom.

"We believe in courtesy and respect. Each of us who tweet [as employees] are just nice :)," he adds.

Still, what happens if you or your colleagues are too naïve (or simply don't want) to stick to the same noble philosophy?

There have been a number of high-profile cases of employees losing their jobs because of their personal Twitter content; objections, criticisms and opinions have been the downfall of many. In most documented cases, the aggrieved employer releases the same statement. Here are two recent examples:

"We simply cannot risk any possible link between our mission and the sort of photos and material that you openly share with the online public. While I know you are a good worker and an intelligent person, I hope you try to understand that our employees are held to a different standard."

"The views she has expressed recently on Twitter are not in keeping with the standards we set."

It would appear that personal comments from staff require a brand-management solution...

The issue becomes even more complicated if your personal account also acts as your professional one. If you're the clear representative (and I'm thinking of freelancers or managing directors, here) for your own company, how do you balance your output to satisfy friends and social-savvy clients? How much self-censorship should be employed to keep both audiences interested?

Larner Caleb, freelance copywriter and regular contributor to The Drum, takes a strong view on the subject.

"If I had to be my own compliance officer in terms of making sure I kept every single tweet 'client safe' well, I for one wouldn't follow me," he says.

"If you can't be yourself on Twitter, then you don't really have a real presence on Twitter. I can't say I've really lost any clients through any of my tweets (I've certainly lost followers, but that definitely wouldn't stop me being myself) but the value I've had out of being myself on Twitter has been enormous."

I'd be interested to hear more thoughts on this. Drop me a comment or get in touch on Twitter.

Until then, you can read a whole batch of internal a social media guidelines from a number of different companies here.


  1. Hey there!

    This is a really interesting topic, and one that I face on a daily basis with my job at Radian6 (I'm part of Amber's team).

    My personal policy has always been that I don't share anything online that I wouldn't feel comfortable sharing with my parents, or having broadcast on the evening news. There are absolutely certain topics that I avoid completely.

    Amber really hits the nail on the head. No amount of disclaimers can excuse something I may say, and I always keep this in mind.

    I'm lucky to be able to talk to people about my work online, and these interactions are just as real as their offline equivalents.

    Community Manager | Radian6

  2. Nice post Tom - and a subject that I feel is becoming an increasingly brighter light on company radars - as it rightly should be. I forgot to mention that I posted on the issue in The Drum a while back here http://thedrum.co.uk/blogs/larnercaleb/2009/11/05/tweet-welcome-to-the-world-of-self-harm-agency-branch/

    Well done for bringing it up again, especially as it's too easy for many employees to forget their employer's SM policy, if indeed, they have one at all.

    Just mentioning on your Twitter profile that the views expressed are your own and not the company's does not cut it for me either. Which ever way you look at it, if you want your profile to gain equity from mentioning your company name then you owe it to your employer to behave accordingly. In other words, if your profile states that you work for Acme Soap Suds then you are, by definition, a brand representative of Acme Soap Suds and should maintain a clean-cut image at all times. Otherwise, get yourself a personal and completely separate account, preferably with a pseudonym and don't mention your employer.

  3. Interesting subject Tom. It reminds me of an episode of Boston Legal (bear with me) when a case arises regarding personal responsibility. A worker is sacked because they smoked and the employer deemed it detrimental to working conditions because it was already losing them work time and could lead to health issues further down the line. The programme raised the issue of how far an employer is allowed to go into the personal space of their employees. Can they dictate terms on anything if it can be determined to impact upon the company brand? What comes first, the individual or the corporation?

  4. Interesting Tom. Could you just explain what a 'lude' comment is?