HEIDI: Welcome to The Startup Solution and "The Case of the Social Media Meltdown." I'm Heidi Roizen from Threshold Ventures.
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A few months ago, I got a call from a pretty distressed entrepreneur I had recently started to work with, who we'll call Eddie.
EDDIE: Hey Heidi, it's Eddie. I need some help. I reposted what I thought was a funny meme last night – well, turns out it's kind of racist. I didn't realize it at the time, but I get that now. I'm getting trolled like crazy online by dozens of people. And my team is super upset; one guy who works here said he doesn't think he can work here anymore! I'm trying to figure out how to undo all this. Can you give me a call? I could really use some of your advice. Thanks.
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HEIDI: Even before this call, I had noticed that Eddie was pretty prolific on social media and didn't seem to have much of a filter. On any given day, he'd post multiple times everything from what he ate for dinner to his opinions about the latest political debate. So, to be honest, Eddie's call didn't come as a surprise.
I wish I had taken the opportunity when I first noticed his social media proclivity, to talk to him about it. I think every entrepreneur should put some thought into how their social media presence may influence their company and the people they work with and establish some ground rules and boundaries to avoid harming their company's chances of success by what they do. Clearly, it was time to have that talk with Eddie.
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Let's start with what I'll call your personal brand.
Look, I cringe a little when I say personal brand – that term was popularized maybe 25 years ago and has been the butt of jokes pretty much ever since. The way some people see it, personal branding is a way to create some outsized persona, you know, wild outfits, outrageous statements, draping yourself across the hood of a Lambo, stuff like that. And maybe that actually works for social media influencers, which is definitely a form of entrepreneurship I know nothing about! But for the kinds of entrepreneurs I do work with, I see their personal brand as something entirely different -- not inauthentic at all, but rather something that can and should be very authentic to them.
Think about what a brand even is. I think of it as a promise of consistency. For example, you can walk into a Starbucks anywhere in the US, or even the world, and you know exactly what will be on the menu, what kind of music will be playing, and even the ambiance of the physical location. That consistency is the power of the Starbucks brand.
I think of a personal brand in the same way. What are your consistent attributes that other people should be able to count on every time they interact with you? Are you funny? Responsive? Edgy? Calm? Dependable? What are your moral or ethical north stars? How do you treat other people? This can, of course, extend to other attributes, including groups you identify with, your religion, politics, or really anything important and consistent about you. It becomes a roadmap – for who you are, what's important to you, how you behave, and what others should expect from you.
And even though today we're only talking about "personal brand" in the context of helping Eddie solve his social media issues, your personal brand has benefits way beyond that. Because once you've really thought about and settled on who you are, what is important to you, and what you are going to present consistently to others, it also helps you be a better manager and leader. It helps others work with you more easily and efficiently because they know what to expect from you, as well as have a better sense of what you expect from them. And knowing what your north stars are will even help you make decisions more easily because you've already set your priorities and determined what's truly important to you.
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Anyway, now that you know what a personal brand is, let's apply it to your social media conduct. To start, consider which attributes of your personal brand you want to expose to a broader audience. I think everyone has somewhat different filters for this, but here's one filter for the more extreme stuff that I think everyone should consider: Only expose things you are willing to be hated for. I think being hated online can be a huge distraction or worse. And it isn't just about you. You also don't want to cause issues for people and companies you work with, either. I mean… is it worth it?
Take political views. For me, there are some things I feel strongly about, but I don't want those things to impact my relationship with the people I work with, who might have differing opinions or affiliations. Politics–especially nowadays–is a hot-button area that gets people very riled up. And so, while I may actively contribute money to candidates and causes I care about, I don't post comments about politics on my social media accounts.
Obviously, some people disagree with me on this particular filter, and I respect that - each of us has the right to choose our own filters. I'm only suggesting that if you're an entrepreneur, you might want to take into account that your posts will reflect not only on you individually but on your company, too. Your employees, your investors, and even your customers may be influenced by how your personal brand reflects on your company brand.
Again, I'm not saying you're not allowed to have opinions or beliefs! In fact, I truly hope everyone exercises their right as a citizen to vote!
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But back to posting only what you're willing to be hated for: If you're going to take a position on something you know might be controversial, at least do it thoughtfully, weighing the consequences not only for yourself but also for the others who may be impacted by what you do. Because once done, as Eddie is learning, it's very hard to undo a social media post.
Now, if you go through my social media history, you'll see what might look like a break of my own rule. One of my kids is trans, and I've blogged about my experience as a parent and my support of making workplaces better for the LGBTQ community. But I actually didn't break my guideline – I just decided I was okay with being hated for this. I made a conscious decision, and I'm willing to live with the repercussions. If someone doesn't want me to sit on their board or take an investment from me because of this, I'm cool with that. It's worth it to me.
Even if not extreme, if you post something that is not in alignment with your company brand, that can cause issues, too. I mean, this should be completely obvious, but, for example, if your company is about renewable energy or eco-conscious products, you probably shouldn't post pictures of yourself driving around in a Hummer. You may laugh, but I've seen people do stuff like this.
Sometimes, even seemingly innocuous posts can get an entrepreneur into hot water. I worked with one entrepreneur who got very excited about some recognition she was getting, including an invitation to speak at a high-profile conference. The conference organizers even flew her there on a private jet. She was so excited that she posted a selfie, champagne glass in hand, kicking back in its luxurious cabin. It didn't occur to her how that post would look to the investors who had just put $20 million into her company. Sure, she hadn't paid a penny for the trip, but that detail wasn't in the post.
And to her new investors, one of whom called me to bitch about it, it looked like she was splurging with company money. Luckily, I knew the details, so I was able to talk that investor down. But still, you have to wonder, who else took away the impression that she was spending company money on things more 'lifestyles of the rich and famous' than critical necessities?
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Let's get back to Eddie and his posts. I spoke with him about all the things I just covered here and suggested he put some thought into his personal brand, his company brand, and whether the two aligned or perhaps conflicted. I suggested he trim his social media posting to only those areas where there was alignment. And when in doubt, to leave it out.
As for the disastrous post, I suggested he issue an apology on the platform where it occurred and send an email apology to his investors and his employees – yes, it had already spread that far. You can't make things disappear off the internet; that's the bad news. But the 'good' news, at least sorta good news, is that usually, pretty soon, the flurry around you will be replaced by the flurry around someone else who hasn't thought through their social media strategy!
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So, what can you take away from the case of the Social Media Meltdown?
First, spend some time thinking through what your personal, genuine brand attributes are.
Second, think about your goals for social media. That is, do you do it for Attention? Likes? Controversy? Or is it to promote your company and help it become successful?
Third, if your goal is to have your social media presence positively influence your company's chance of success, then consider only posting in ways that align with your company brand.
Fourth, it's okay to take a position on something you feel strongly about, even if it might provoke controversy. Just be sure you've thought it through and are willing to live with the consequences.
Fifth, when in doubt, leave it out. Posts are basically impossible to completely erase, and it's hard enough to succeed as an entrepreneur without causing yourself additional trouble.
And finally, if you do make a mistake, apologize, correct what you can, learn from it, and move on.
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HEIDI: And that concludes "The Case of the Social Media Meltdown." For the record, this situation is real, but Eddie is a composite. And no startups were exposed or harmed in the making of this podcast.
Thanks for listening to this episode of "The Startup Solution." We hope you've enjoyed this episode, and if you have, please share it with someone who you think would like it, too. I'm Heidi Roizen from Threshold Ventures.
One of the most famous and early cases of a tweet bringing down someone’s career and life is the story of Justine Sacco, a cautionary tale worth a read
A whole book on the topic of social media attacks, by Jon Ronson: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Now that we’ve covered what not to do, here’s a good article about what you can do to leverage social media for your startup: The Power of Social Media Marketing
Aaron Levie (Box co-founder and CEO) is considered one of the greats when it comes to CEOs using social media. More here