Politics, Social Media and Your Business

I learned many things from my grandfather growing up: keep your elbows off the table, use a napkin not  the tablecloth and always hold a door for anyone who is behind you.  He grew up in a time when common civilities and good manners were arguably more important or at least more consistently observed.  He also told me never to talk about politics or religion with strangers, and never, ever, tell someone their baby isn’t the cutest thing ever.  I’ve been better about observing some of his lessons than others.

My grandfather passed away at age 94, just at the very dawn of what was to become our hyper-connected, hyper-kinetic internet-based world.  I’m not sure what he would have made of it.  I’ve been thinking about him lately in the context of the changes that have happened since his passing, not so much to the technology—that happens over any person’s lifetime—but to public engagement.    As business people we live in decidedly different times than our predecessors, less because of what we do or sell, but because of the abundant ways we have ways of connecting with the public.  With this plethora of communications comes an avalanche of outreach which can turn into an undifferentiated roar, good for little but inducing a headache.  Standing out from that noise is a huge challenge and we’ll visit that topic in the near future.

A more pressing and challenging component to our many ways of reaching the world today and it has implications for anyone in business: drawing the line between public personal commentary and equally public business communication.  We live in an age where the ability to go from the brain to the mouth (well, keyboard) can, and often is, unencumbered by the thought process. Sharing one’s thoughts  is within easy reach, every hour of every day.  While I am the strongest of supporters of free speech, regardless of my personal views on that speech, there’s a certain recklessness that has found firm footing in our society, both at its most casual and colloquial and at its most important.  Said another way, just because you CAN say something doesn’t mean you SHOULD.  We now have the ability to express a view or comment on another’s perspective ,not just one on one, face to face, or muttering to yourself over a coffee, but to the entire world if we choose to—at that moment without even getting off the sofa.

I probably note a half dozen “WTF?” moments in my various social media feeds a day, and I just keep going. Where I get, maybe astonished is the best word, is when what would/should have been an airing of different views dives headfirst into the mud and crude insults (in all caps even!), without any intermediate step.  I’m no sociologist, and I know what we see here is just another symptom of what many would argue ails the country as a whole.  But going from disagreement to slinging digital poo seems to me a problem.

This all intersects with business in that there is no rule book, no good guidance for separating whether you are speaking as yourself when a viewpoint, controversial or otherwise is expressed, or if you are acting on behalf of your company.  In a simpler time there were spokespeople and communications were either on the record or off (more or less).  Now, however, a business’s Facebook identity is often tightly tied to the people who manage that identity, who usually have their own Facebook pages. That’s fine to the extent that it lends humanness and personality to the corporate business world, but it also comingles personal perspectives with the persona of your business.  I don’t suggest this is always a bad thing.  If your business has a viewpoint, a cause, or something as a whole you’re passionate about and want to advertise, have at it.  We’ve never had a better bully pulpit.

If, on the other hand, you really don’t want your business to stand for anything other than the products or services it provides, there’s work to be done in keeping personal commentary separate from the business side.  There are emerging policies and guidelines available online to help, but if you’re a local businessperson, keeping the sides separate is really hard to do if it can really be done at all.  It’s more logical and prudent to think about how you want to engage, and consider the implications before you press the enter key. Then go ahead and do what you think is right.  Be passionate.  Be concerned.  Be contrary.  That’s your right. Just don’t be a troll and remember that what happens on Facebook, unlike Vegas, does not stay on Facebook.