5 Guidelines for Public vs. Private in Social Media

Lisa Hickey has an excellent post at her blog,  The Hurricane Inside My Brain, about private conversations in the world of social media. It is a reminder that the line between public and private has never been thinner – and less defined.  This is an especially important lesson for businesses who are jumping into social media conversations on Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms.

What would George Orwell think of Twitter?

What would George Orwell think of Twitter?

Conversations on social media platforms aren’t private.  Either are conversations on email or IM.  Todd Defren at PR Squared today has a blog post with this ominous title: “Twitter Rule #2: Remember That You’re Being Watched.” It’s a great reminder

It’s very easy to forget – while Twittering in the privacy of your office or updating your Facebook page – that you’re not talking with just friends and family.  Everything you write or post on a social media platform is for everyone to see — and share.  There is no privacy in cyberspace.  When you are engaging in social media for your business – it’s crucial to treat every interaction as a public one.

My first experience with this concept occurred in 2007 while I co-leading PR for One Laptop Per Child.  A BBC reporter interviewed one of the OLPC junior technology leaders who provided a lot of inside details about a proposal to sell the laptops to the general public. That decision was ultimately rejected by the organization (however, OLPC did later run a “Give One, Get One” campaign to sell to the public – but only for a limited time).  However, the BBC reporter wrote a web-based article about the conversation as if the laptops would begin popping up at retail outlets.

I would have done the same thing.  It was big news at the time.  But the information wasn’t right.  I contacted the BBC reporter and explained the situation – that it was a far-fetched proposal – not a fact.  The reporter was adamant that the OLPC spokesperson had given him the information.  I concurred, but explained that the essence of the information was incorrect.  So while he had gotten the information from a reliable OLPC source, that information was wrong.  I asked him to please fix the misinformation in the article.  We went back and forth on the telephone and over email for the better part of two hours.

I was delighted when he finally agreed to rewrite his article.

However, in a box embedded inside the article was a link to the reporter’s blog that promised to give readers an inside look at why he had decided to correct the article.  In his blog post, the reporter described our conversation in detail (although he only identified me as an OLPC spokesperson) and explained to his readers why he was correcting his story.

The blog post caught me by surprise (and, boy, was I thankful  that our conversation had been polite and respectful!).  At the time, I had been a senior PR consultant for many years and previous to that a journalist.  I had always adhered by the unwritten rule that conversations between media and PR consultants (hacks and flacks) were behind the scenes – and therefore off-the-record.

And that’s when I realized that the Web had smashed the old rules.  There was no longer such a thing as “off-the-record.” And that was a scary thought as the practice of PR consulting can resemble a sausage factory – better to see the finished results than take a look at all the messy things that lead up to the final product.

But it was a lesson that stuck with me.  Social media has opened up businesses like never before – helped them to engage with customers, discover important resources and tap into reservoirs of new information. But we’re still figuring out the rules of decorum for this new medium.   Businesses need to remember that their interactions on social media platforms are public.

But even interactions you think are private might not be.  Remember: everyone is a reporter now.  The disgruntled customer might have 5,000 followers on Twitter.  The waitress serving you while you discuss your company’s top-secret new product could be an avid blogger.  Snide comments about rivals at a trade show can end up on Facebook book.

It’s a scary concept – and one that probably has George Orwell spinning like a top in his grave.  Who among us hasn’t said something stupid and immediately wished we could retract it?  Now these lapses in decorum can become the fodder for discussion and embarrassment on the the world wide web.  So what’s a business person to do?

Here are five rules that I try to follow (with varying degrees of success):

– Be polite (even when you disagree with people.  Debate is much better than arguments).

– Be transparent (if you’ve got skin in the game – tell people you do.  Honesty is always best).

– Admit your mistakes (you’re going screw up.  We all do.  Admit it and apologize if necessary. Then move on).

– Be discrete (don’t talk in public about anything you don’t want public).

– Be trustworthy (treat other people like you want to be treated.  Think about others before you post).


  1. You’re being watched | THE TRUTH HURTS - August 11, 2013

    […] Livingstone, S 2005, ‘Mediating the public/private boundary at home: children’s use of the internet for privacy and participation’, London: LSE Research Online, viewed 11/08/2013, <http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/506/1/JMP_6(1).pdf […]

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