The Do’s and Don’ts of Social Media: A Fine Line

by | Jan 12, 2011

This is a guest post from Marc Levine, social media director for RiaEnjolie, a website developer for small business owners. Marc shares some best practices he uses to get the most out of social media highlighting some of the things we need to consider when jumping into social media.

Be Wary of the Fine Line.

We all must all do our part to ensure that the Era of Social Media is never referred to as the Age of Irresponsibility.

Every one of us needs to be extremely careful and overly thoughtful while engaging with others in Social Media. Social Networking is a honeybee with a huge stinger. In the same way that the honeybee is responsible for a bounty of beautiful flowers, Social Media offers us many of a wonderful way to connect with the world.  However, if we are reckless with our online relationships and are not careful choosing the words — and photos — we post online, we can easily be stung by the bee. The results can be very painful in a variety of ways, and in some cases, fatal to our reputations.

The fact is that full-blown Social Media has only been around for about half of a decade. It is still a very youthful and impetuous communications medium. It has a lot of growing up to do and so do we as its users. The problem with anything so new is that we really “don’t know what we don’t know” about it.  The human relations and legal implications of Social Media are not fully understood and those exposures inherent within its engagements are highly unpredictable and potentially dangerous.  This is largely because we are dealing with a myriad of people coming to us from diverse cultures and backgrounds; each having their own set of values, ideals, expectations, tastes and motives. The latter are not always respectable.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Anton Chekhov

Further complicating this complex dynamic is the understanding that Social Networking is a form of communication devoid of body language. This is particularly problematic because in Social Media we are only using words to express our thoughts. We are without the help of our usually telling gestures and universally understood facial expressions, which we exhibit to others in our face-to face exchanges. It is these expressions and gestures that give our words their correct meaning and proper context. 

If you have ever seen the hit Fox television show, “Lie to Me,” starring the accomplished British actor Tim Roth, you’ll know exactly what I mean. In that show, trained law enforcement experts read and interpret the body language of suspects to determine whether or not they are telling the truth. A slight facial tic, subtle eye aversion or prominent swallow at a key moment during interrogation might reveal their guilt.

Most Social Media platforms do not allow for any physical expression and this can often lead to mistaken interpretations of one’s actual intent. And, because most Social Media takes place on either side of a one-way computer monitor, our inhibitions are also sometimes short-circuited; permitting inappropriate behaviors to take place. Don’t forget that whenever we interact with other people, it’s all about their perceptions and personal interpretations. We must always be aware of this for our own reputation management and that of anyone else we may happen to be representing, personally or professionally. A false impression can be just as damaging as the real thing.

 “Consequences are the scarecrows of fools and the beacons of wise men.”  

Thomas Henry Huxley

Threat from anything with risk potential stemming from the volatility of casual and candid human interaction can sometimes bring with it the most unanticipated, unpleasant and costly consequences. When such exposures involve privacy matters, they represent — without a doubt — a potential landmine for somebody. Put all such concerns together in a single place and what you have created for yourself and often for others is a “perfect storm” of legal headaches. Since Social Media is a fairly new interactive phenomenon, there is very little case law on the books to help the legal system rule, fairly. What can judges and juries really count on to help them decide the innocence or guilt of individuals and businesses accused of crossing the lines of responsible and lawful behavior? It is much like a doctor performing a new operation for the very first time.   

Beyond the legal system, there is also the court of public opinion and its close relative — the news media. They often work hand-in-hand as judge, jury and even as executioner. Lives and reputations can often hang in the balance. Many a robust career and solid marriage have been ruined as a result of someone’s deliberate actions or even careless mistakes. And, others have unfairly suffered loss and indignity from an unfortunate misinterpretation or misunderstanding. After all, we are all not equally gifted as flawless communicators.

The stakes are very high. Social Media must always be respected and handled with kid gloves. After all, it is just a “thing,” with no soul and no conscience. It only does what we tell it to do and what we do may be viewed by millions of judgmental readers – some with significant influence in our own lives. 

“The higher the risk, the more necessary it is to engage everyone’s commitment and intelligence.”
Margaret J. Wheatley

I have a rather unique professional background, which lends itself well to this discussion. After a long career in human resources and staffing industry management, I transitioned to Social Media Marketing. My intent was to try something different and to refresh my career interests. Should I be very surprised by what I have found in my new career? I have quickly discovered that Social Media, today, is where “personnel” was when I first met up with it back in the late 1970s. That was shortly before it matured into what we presently call “Human Resources.”  By the way, the late 1970s was still a long time before anyone ever considered the idea of PHR and SPHR certifications for the field. In fact, back in those days, “personnel” wasn’t even really a legitimate career field. It was largely an administrative job involving mostly paperwork completion, filing and almost no decision-making.

What made Human Resources a “meatier” career field? With the advice of their lawyers, average employees realized that they could sue their employers over matters of age discrimination, sexual harassment, exposure to toxic chemicals, accidents in the workplace and a whole host of other things. The increasing threat of potential litigation involving employees and even job applicants created the need for a new strategic partner in the executive boardroom. Almost overnight, the personnel clerk was morphed into the human resources generalist.

Over the past 30 years, Human Resources can be credited with saving companies billions of dollars in losses, due to their wise counsel and their vigilant oversight of their function.

“Nothing in life is to be feared.  It is only to be understood.”  – Marie Curie

My post is not written to scare people away from using Social Media. The ongoing legal challenges associated with the hiring and firing of people didn’t make companies stop doing these things. It just made CEOs and other business people take a few steps back and make some important decisions about what they needed to do to reduce their exposures. Their thinking gave birth to the field of Human Resources. Today and every day, these professionals work side-by-side with their senior managers and employment attorneys to react and pro-act to the threats that businesses may face from a variety of potential litigants. 

Fortunately, those in the business world engaging in Social Media have the benefit of having Human Resources and legal counsel around to help keep them out of trouble. But, without lots of solid planning and careful forethought, Social Media use can still result in embarrassing and costly mistakes. All parties must be willing to closely work together to better educate themselves and to train others in the responsible use of Social Media. 

Social Media DEFINITELY requires clearly written and strictly adhered to policies and procedures; comprehensive and up-to-date training; full ACCOUNTABILITY and reams of supporting DOCUMENTATION, just like the field of Human Resources also requires to defend a company and/or employee when it becomes necessary.

Please forgive me for saying this, but I have found that the more things change, the more they seem to remain the same. This is especially true during the evolution of Social Media. For me, coming from the field of Human Resources, it’s deja vu all over again.


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