Smart sharing: A business without social media is an office without a door

What are you, as a business person, supposed to say -- and not say -- on social media? David Gewirtz shares some guidelines on personal and professional branding.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Although social media is becoming a major element of the marketing strategy for many companies, there is still an aura of mystery around why it works. We all know we are expected to have a social media presence.

Many of us have grudgingly added it to our to-do lists, even though we may not be sure how to derive actual value from it. A lot of people seem confused about just what to post.

What are you, as a business person, supposed to say on social media?

Before I answer that specific question, let's establish that there are generally two types of social media account users: individuals and companies. When you post as an individual (even if you're the CEO of a company), your posts should reflect your personal voice.

When you post as a company, you're more likely to want to post corporate-centric information. I'll get into both in this article.

When you post, you're publishing

Many of us post on our personal accounts but have some level of responsibility for representing our organizations. In other words, if you're a key player in your company, no matter what you post, it reflects back on your company. When I post, I'm always conscious that everything I say reflects back on CBS and ZDNet, so I want to make sure my posts are not inappropriate.

Let's begin with a social media rule of thumb. This is the metric by which I measure every post I publish. First, whether you're the CEO of a major company, a presidential candidate, or a kid still in school, remember that when you post to social media, you're publishing. You are reaching an audience, and you're posting for posterity.

In other words, something you post when you're 19 could be used to evaluate whether you're worthy of getting that manager job when you're 34. Even if you think you're only posting to friends, keep in mind that this stuff sticks around.

My rule of thumb is this: if I think a post wouldn't be appropriate for a judge to see, for the FBI to see, for my boss to see, or I wouldn't want it to show up on someone's blog, I don't post it. In my case, those are pretty tangible concerns, because federal judges and officials from the FBI (as well as other three-letter agencies), not to mention all manner of congress-critters, actually do follow my feeds. Even so, this guideline should apply to all of you as well.

I'll talk about specifics in a minute, but remember this: it's OK to be boring. It's not okay to post something that can ruin your life sometime in your future. Be circumspect. Imagine everything you're posting will be reported in the local newspaper or attached to your resume when applying for a job.

Posting on your personal account

When social media first started to take off, I refused to use it. I couldn't see why I'd want to talk about my lunch, or look at other people's food pictures. It seemed self-aggrandizing in the most shallow way possible.

My wife gave me a lecture about not becoming a dinosaur and convinced me I needed to give it my attention. Initially, I didn't like the idea, but she was right. As I built up a following over the years, I've noticed that others really do look at the number of followers I have as a way of qualifying whether to work with me. There are now many management systems out there that rate your social media clout in determining how to relate with you. It may be kind of disturbing, but it's real.

Social media is also wonderful. As a media personality, I can have a direct relationship with my fans. I can talk to people, hear what interests them, and joke with them. They can get to know me. It's also nice to be able to know how an old friend is doing. But for me, that's more of a side benefit.

I have a number of very discontinuous areas of focus, from politics to national security to hands-on maker-like stuff. On social media, I tend to post a smattering of all that. A few nights ago, I posted a picture of a 3D print of an octopus with Spock ears.

During the presidential conventions, I posted a series of mocks about both parties. That said, I very specifically avoid partisanship. I won't post rants supporting or hating on any given candidate. I might link to a cogent analysis of a candidate's chances or newsworthy statements.

Even though (or perhaps because) I'm a professional political commentator, I refuse to engage in heated political arguments on social media. If you want my advice, you would be wise to avoid arguments as well.

On a personal level, I post puppy pictures and comments about coffee. I sometimes post things I find amusing. I particularly like to post articles I find interesting, fascinating, or thought-provoking. I did not discuss the last three years of hell my wife and I went through with terribly ill family members. That was private. I feel it is inadvisable to have private conversations in a public forum.

The reason I keep talking about my personal account in an article about social media for business is that your personal account (and those of your other key players) allows you to connect with your constituents on a more intimate level. It's no longer about a faceless corporation, it's people.

By using a well-curated (but open and friendly) personal account in addition to an official corporate account, your customers, users, and partners can get to know you better. You can get to know them better, too. You can show you care. That's a huge benefit of social media.

Basically, I treat my social media feeds as a variety show. People don't read them like a book. They dip in for each individual thing, and that allows for a wide range of topics. Of course, I post my articles, webcasts, and videos, but I don't dedicate my feeds to self-promotion. Self-promotion happens, but if that were all that was there, my followers wouldn't be nearly as interested.

My advice when posting on a personal account is to relax and post topics you care about. I actively engage with my followers when they're fun and polite. When they're weird or crappy, I just ignore them. I don't allow anyone to bait me, nor do I want to feed the trolls. The Twitter heart button has helped a lot, because I no longer always need to comment. I just "heart" stuff and followers know they've been heard.

Posting as a company

When you're posting using a company account, use a more corporate voice. Keep the company account for product announcements, status updates, and customer support interactions. That doesn't mean your key people shouldn't also post using their personal accounts, but rather that when posting using your named corporate account, posts are most appropriately focused on company-specific messaging and support.

Final thoughts

Is social media a pox on mankind? Possibly. Can you learn to work it as a professional? Definitely. Can it have some benefit beyond professional work? Your mileage may vary. Is it important to develop a habit of posting to social media networks if you have any personal or professional branding or outreach responsibility? Absolutely.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

Editorial standards