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Social Media: Good Intel or Rockstar Personas?

Posted on 9/24/14 11:30 AM

bigstock-Social-Network-Homepage-On-A-M-68409964Ten years ago, the average person could manage his or her reputation simply by burning all the copies of the high school year book and by avoiding too many drinks at the holiday office party. Today, it’s not just that our lives are expose on several social media platforms…it’s that we volunteer these tidbits of our fame and fortune so freely. Perhaps for most—but not all—over the age of 30, we use a certain amount of discretion and common sense before we click “post.” Unfortunately this is not always the case for the Millennials and we may be witnessing an entire generation that later in life hires Web Reputation services the way Baby Boomers hired 401k financial planners. To that point, it might be helpful for public schools to eliminate guidance counselors and replace them with public relations advisors. 

Social Media “information” has taken turns down avenues we don’t completely understand and many professionals remain uncertain not only as to “how to” evaluate that information, but if they should even consider it. And while that large ship of Case Law, slowly turns to advance upon the questions and concerns, the real world moves at a much quicker pace. But its not all misty gray as there are places we can turn to get an idea of the direction.

One such place is the American Bar Association (ABA). The ABA is not an organization that takes lightly the moral issues or the ethics and behaviors of its members. Recently, the ABA determined that social media research is, in fact, fair game when it comes to Jury Selection. In their opinion, a potential jurors post’s, if not kept private, fall under the public information category. If the use of that information is acceptable when evaluating participation in our legal system, the implications for its use in other arenas seem vast. 

Few persons would lament or lose any sleep over being passed up for jury selection. But what happens when such information is used in matters that the individual does care about? Like for college entry, job selection or to determine one’s potential involvement in a crime. And for the researcher, what is the self-imposed statute of limitations on social media posts? When is picture or post too old to consider? It’s an important question. 

That stupid comment I made in my High School year book may remain buried in the boxes and attics of a few hundred people, but that dumb, drunk Facebook post may very well live forever. And let’s face it—people started using social media before they understood the Web “never forgets.” Today, many people still don’t quite understand that their pictures and tweets are public and public for a very long time.

Those acting in a professional capacity such as police officers, lawyers, hiring managers, human resource and loss prevention personnel can’t just ignore the available information. In the private sector, we may not make any decision based solely on a social media post, but curiosity is a powerful beast and someone is certainly going to “have a look” under the hood of the candidate. A policy of “we don’t look” is probably more problematic than one that outlines how such information is evaluated, what types of content is evaluated, and the overall weight of the information. Such an approach means a controlled burn of the information, instead of a lot of water cooler gossip that creates issues and distractions.

If all social media was of the LinkedIn type, the information would be about as controversial as any canned response to any canned interview question—“Hmm, my greatest weakness?” pause as if pondering the well-rehearsed response—“My attention to detail.” That, however, is not the case. We are all business when typing up our public LinkedIn profiles and then, thirty seconds later, we are posting a selfie from Sunday’s tailgate.  And just like that Mr. “Seeks opportunity to use vast professional experience and knowledge” becomes, “Yo football fans we are so drunk up in here.” Because, in truth, both platforms are used to manage image. One intends to be a professional image and the other, a fun rock star persona…or insert: great family persona, fitness nut, political pundit, religious advocate, horse lover, cat lover, mommy blogger…the list is endless.

And knowing that it is “persona” is the piece of the puzzle that haunts professionals. We are stuck between rationalizing the things we see—“well yeah I’ve posted crazy stuff too” where we risk missing important information and judging too harshly—“who dresses like that? Ew!” where we risk ascribing our personal preferences over an individual’s ability to be successful. There may not be any single and correct solution to the dilemma. The decision to put our head in the sand avoids the decision to determine how to use social media intel, but it also places us behind the curve in terms of good investigative research. 

This is a blog and I would be, of course, remiss in my duties if I asked that you leave empty handed, so let me provide at least a framework for a solution. It is based on some of the principles applied by the ABA and on those same standards we adhere to in conducting any type of investigation:

1. Use social media with “cause.” In other words, don’t search out “Bob White” just because you are curious. If Bob gives you a reason to look at his public information (don’t “friend or follow” just to snoop) then take a look. Good reasons are things such as applying for a sensitive or leadership position, or if Bob becomes potentially involved in dishonesty, or is suspected of criminal behavior, or is potentially creating a public relations nightmare.

2. Evaluate only information that is related to your research. Bob’s love of mind-numbing Jazz is not germane to the research of employee discount abuse

3. Let the information act as the beginning of the inquiry, not as the final determination. Like any good investigation, facts are just pieces of information that we must evaluate in the preponderance of All the evidence.

4. Take it all with a “grain of salt.” We know that social media is a small slice of our lives and that often people make the mundane extreme in order to entertain or create tongue in cheek controversy. The younger the person, the more likely you are viewing an orchestrated rock star persona.

5. Be consistent. The reasons we use social media research, the triggers, the information, and the evaluation process should remain the same for everyone. Trouble begins when our parameters are set based on emotions, likes and dislikes, and when some fall under greater scrutiny than others for purely subjective reasons.

The issues and concerns raised by the birth of public personas are far too large and great to remain unattended. It would be nice if someone created a rule book or if people gave greater thought to how a particular picture, post or comment might appear to strangers. Over time, the legal system will probably tend to the former. I’ve seen little evidence that individual common sense…my own included…will win the day for the latter. As corporate professionals, however, we don’t need a rule book to decide how, when, and why to use the information. Like all problems we have and will face, we can apply a thoughtful, fair, and defendable process to compensate for the changes and the inevitable grey areas that surface 


Authored by: Ray Esposito


Ray Esposito 

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