Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Is speaking freely via social media REALLY a good idea for companies?

On Sunday night as #blogchat was about to start, I was asking everyone what they wanted to talk about. Chris Heuer threw out that he wished we'd discuss why conservatives are 'fear and hate mongers' and that he thinks they will tear the country apart.

My kneejerk reaction to this was 'Ok Chris is sounding like a loon', but it turns out he was upset partly due to tweets like this that were aimed at his family.

But if I hadn't seen that tweet, I would have to go with my 'Chris is sounding like a loon' conclusion. And this goes back to a fundamental truth of social media; there are THREE sides to every conversation. There's your side, my side, and then the side of everyone else that forms their opinions based on what THEY saw.

And this is why I think companies need to be VERY careful about letting their employees get on social media sites and engage in hot-button issues such as politics, religion, etc. It is SO easy for people to get into arguments about these topics, because everyone has so much passion for their beliefs invested. And it is SO easy for someone to take a tweet out of context, as I almost did with Chris. On top of that, many people might want to stop doing business with a company if they discover that their employees hold a political or religious stance that they are strongly opposed to. Might not be fair, but it's reality.

What do you think? Should companies strictly forbid any non-business talk from their employees on social sites? Then again, isn't one of the great benefits of companies using social media is that it allows them to 'be more human', and doesn't that mean openly sharing opinions?

I can see both sides of this, but lean toward having greater limitations for employees on discussions involving certain topics such as politics and religion. What say you?

UPDATE: I like Tom Jones' (Tom do you have a site/blog I can add a link to here?) take on this in the comments:

"There is no way companies should try and limit what there employees are posting to only company related topics. This practice would be certain Doom to any company that attempted to impose it. However, it is not unreasonable to ask an employee that when they are representing the company they stay away from certain topics like religion and politics. This is not the same as limiting all speech but it does set guidelines when functioning as a representative of the company."


Stacey Hood said...

Mack, as you stated there's various views to anything. When it comes to the written word, sarcasm is hard to measure, just as is intent.

Non-business communication is fine if policed to the point to where it's casual conversations; sports, weather, etc. But the minute it crosses the line to politics and religion, there's going to be problems.

The US is at odds with itself thanks to the parties bickering with each other and the economy. People are tired of a lot of things, stress is at an all-time high, etc, etc. As a representative of ANY company, the minute you throw out a political/religious statement, there's going to be a problem.

Some things are better left unsaid.

Brandon Sutton said...

Interesting post Mack. It brings up a point that I think a lot of people are struggling with – where is the line between personal and business space in social media? I’m conflicted on this myself – particularly as it pertains to Twitter, but Facebook as well.

I’ve been very active on online social networks since the early days of Friendster, and I believe that part of the value that I bring to my company and my clients is that I have this experience as a normal consumer in addition to as a marketer. I think this is one of my biggest strengths – I’m able to see first as a member of the community and then apply my skills as a marketer with those personal insights. This is a long way around saying that when I’m being myself (an everyday consumer of social media) on sites such as Facebook, I’m more in touch with how the masses are using these networks. I don’t think it’s enough to just observe and think we can ‘get it’ - there is really no substitute for being deeply involved and using the tools. But when personal beliefs, politics, etc. get thrown into the mix, there is always the risk that a colleague, client, etc. won’t like what they see. On the other hand, if you can’t ‘be yourself’ like the millions of other people that are interacting, I can’t help but think there is a disconnect.

I think by the tone of your entry, you were specifically talking about brands/brand representatives that are posting specifically on behalf of the brand – correct me if I’m wrong. I definitely think that is a line that should not be crossed. But where is the line on personal profiles? Pretty much everybody works for someone, right? At what point is it uncool to post personal messages on your personal networks for concern about what your boss, client, etc. might think? As I said, I’m conflicted on this one. I’m curious to hear other perspectives on this. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

Unknown said...


I see both sides to the argument as well. I think that the answer may lie with the context of the words we're using. The word conversation has been used to describe social media since the term was coined. The word debate is used when people discuss political ideologies.

One of those words implies a zero sum game, while the other does not...

I've seen plenty of debates on message boards to know that both parties end up losing (time, face, their cool) when engaging in them.

There just seems to be so many more productive outlets for employees on the internets than arguing on-line.

motbones said...


Good post. There is no way companies should try and limit what there employees are posting to only company related topics. This practice would be certain Doom to any company that attempted to impose it. However, it is not unreasonable to ask an employee that when they are representing the company they stay away from certain topics like religion and politics. This is not the same as limiting all speech but it does set guidelines when functioning as a representative of the company.

- Tom Jones

Ardath Albee said...

To Tom's comment:

Is separation of person and company even possible on social media? I understand the point, but unless every employee maintains two identities - work and personal - then how do you differentiate?

Do people look at time and think, okay - he Tweeted that at 8PM so he must be on personal time? Are people even able to separate a personal tweet from a work tweet if they know the connection before they read it? Or even if they learn about the affiliation afterward.

Interesting discussion.

Charity Hisle said...

Social media tools are just that, tools. Used to participate in conversation in much the same way we do so with the use of the phone, email and in person (at dinner with our customers). If you wouldn't discuss politics on the phone with a customer, or in person with a vendor during lunch, WHY would you discuss it on your professional Twitter account?

This is where I believe persons should have multiple Twitter accounts. Occasionally I post a conservative tweet from my main account and am thankful for the new(ish) Twitter change that does not share my tweets with all of my liberal friends (in their feed). I'm not here to offend anyone, merely share my ideas (or ideals) with others.

There are Twitter bullies on both sides of the political fence. It is unfortunate; and many of us feel strongly about our beliefs. My brother-in-law and I regularly have political debates on Facebook. Usually, we agree to disagree or have lighthearted banter. Fortunately, I have defined user lists on my FB profile so not everyone can see my political banter.

I only wish Twitter had some tool for us to manage lists so that we could maintain a single Twitter account for both personal and professional tweets.

Getting to know your customer service rep is a good thing, as long as there are the same boundaries that you would use regarding other communication tools.

Unknown said...

Mack, the last US election opened my eyes in a new way to our inability to respectfully disagree with divergent issues. Unlike the late Sen. Kennedy we seem to be unable to passionately advocate for our beliefs, fight with our opponents on the issues and then sing songs afterward. For that reason, we struggle with where to draw the line in social media - a question that business owners, solopreneurs and companies wrestle to answer. I absolutely believe that companies can and should have guidelines for employees in regard to social media. It is fair to set standards for those representing your brand. I also believe that as individuals we must learn to refrain from baseless, personal attacks. Fight if you will about an issue, disagree but leave out the name calling and vile insults.

DJ Waldow said...

Ahhh...politics, religion, sex, drugs, yada yada. What really is off limits to discuss? My answer is that nothing should be off limits on a personal level. If I want to talk about my love for the Michigan Wolverines and you want to counter with the Alabama Crimson Tide, so be it. I realize that sports is not nearly the "hot topic" as religion or politics is, but to me it's the same thing.

I actually have stronger feelings and am more passionate about sports then I am about politics/religion. I tweet about Michigan and the NY (football) Giants all the time. Gary Vee talks about his Jets ad nauseam.

We have to give people (humans) credit enough that they can decipher one person's point of view from that of an organization. Just because I love Michigan football does not mean that Blue Sky Factory (BSF) does.

Am I making sense?

DJ Waldow
Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory

Ryan Miller said...


Enjoyed your post. I've been thinking about where the business ends and YOU begin. I've also noticed that some of my PR friends feel compelled to use their own personal accounts to 'tow the line' with company messages. I feel very strongly that your employer has no business editing, suggesting, or (god forbid) forbidding what you can post on your personal social media channels. I think it’s very important to have your own voice online. On the other hand I think I have a responsibility to use common sense and not say things that may get me fired from a job or reflect poorly on my company, or disrespecting others.

Like other comments above, I DO however think that restrictions can and should be in place for messages that come from the 'official' accounts of companies through social media. While it's important to be human, I think it's also reasonable to stay away from religious or political discussions when tweeting as a brand.


Andrea Hill said...

When I go into a bricks and mortar store, I don't expect the staff to share their opinions on religion and politics, so why would I want that online?

Gavin Heaton said...

I tend to agree with Andrea. I don't walk into a store and start arguing. And in business, even with people I have worked with for years, I would scarcely have a conversation that digs into politics or religion.

I guess it is about knowing where that line is - and it should be clear. Stay professional. Be responsible. And be bigger than the other guy ;)