Exercising the 1st Amendment on Social Media…the Intelligent Way

free speech on social mediaIn the information age, access to the Internet has provided millions of people with the opportunity to be mouthpieces on pretty much anything they want. Anonymity can create an urgency to say whatever you want, however you want, about whomever you want to say it. For someone whose social media presence is purely a personal project, free speech can (and should) be taken advantage of. But for professionals looking to properly market themselves to recruiters or businesses looking to bolster their brands, attention must be paid to how opinions are shared on social media.

So how do you know what’s appropriate and what isn’t? How do you (or your brand) safely toe the line between being too safe with your words, thus projecting a sterile presence on social media that will send your followers into a yawn fest, and being gravely offensive, committing one of those oft-newsworthy faux pas that embarrass you and alienate your fans? Here’s a few pieces of advice to make sure that you don’t suffer any missteps in your social media waltz.

Be Aware of What Qualifies as Offensive

This really should go without saying, but with different companies come different privileges on social media. Know your audience. We can’t say this enough. What is offensive depends entirely upon the group of people reading your content, and not knowing who your fans and followers are (in addition to being bad business) can cause some serious water to rise under the social media bridge that closes the gap between you and them.

Pay attention to brands who have the liberty to comment on political issues because they’ve openly aligned themselves with one side or the other. Perhaps they even gained many of their followers because of that political affiliation.

If your brand’s political affiliation is not part of your business model, it’s best not to engage in heated debates via social media. It can get weird for your followers, and you might end up offending a large portion of them.

Remember: Personal Brands are STILL BRANDS

Something that many people forget is that if you represent a company, your own personal brand IS STILL REPRESENTATIVE OF YOUR COMPANY. We don’t mean to yell, but seriously: keep your personal rants and raves on a private, top-secret social media account that is populated only by those closest to you. No personal meltdowns or possibly offensive opinions published on Twitter for 10,000 followers to see; it can only cause trouble for your company, in both damage control and in reputation.

Using Social Media to Comment on Public Events is OK; Shamelessly Plugging Your Brand Isn’t

Something that many companies have a serious issue with is the shameless plugging of their brand during inappropriate times. Yes, social media gives you a huge platform with which to reach thousands and even millions of potential customers. But remember: no one wants to put their money into a company that isn’t culturally sensitive and humane when it comes to public event or disasters.

Consider the Gap Clothing Company, which released this highly insensitive Tweet during Hurricane Sandy last fall. Not only did Gap offend and alienate much of the East Coast (and the rest of the world), they did nothing to help their already lagging North American presence.

The moral of the story is that all public or current events, especially disasters, should be commented on with the utmost sensitivity, and should never involve a shameless or ill-timed plug for your company’s products or services. People want to buy products and services from other people, not machines that are systematically hunting for the dollar-coated lining on a disaster or popular event.

If You’re an Employee, You Represent Your Company

It’s something that makes the news time and time again: an employee posts something wildly offensive about his or her place of work and the firestorm of criticism ensues. The situations usually end in the employee’s termination and the company scrambling to save face and pick up pieces.

Here’s the thing: we all have our opinions. Most of us have gripes about our place of work, our bosses, our co-workers, you name it. But we also have to remember that as employees, we are representatives of our place of work, even if we don’t necessarily want to be, and part of the unspoken agreement that we make when we take a job is not airing our company’s dirty laundry on social media for the world to see. Historically, this has seemed to be a challenge for many disgruntled employees, who express their rage at workplace injustices by unleashing gnarly Tweets into the Twitterverse. The moral of the story: if you don’t want to get fired, don’t badmouth the company you work for on the Internet.

The lure of the Internet can be strong, and with it comes the temptation to unleash our every whimsical (or offensive) thought on our blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the like. Knowing when, where and how to express yourself on social media, however, is an invaluable asset to brands and their employees.

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