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Social Media Spheres: The Dual Identity Conundrum

Here at Didit, we try to practice what we preach, and one thing we tell our social media clients is that it’s a wise practice to fully leverage internal resources when executing any social media effort. “Internal resources” includes both useful, helpful content and useful, helpful people – after all, who’s more likely to be fully engaged, passionate, responsive, and knowledgeable than a brand’s own employees?

So we asked some of our own staff to support Didit’s own branding efforts by liking the Didit Facebook page, following us on Twitter, and circling us on Google+.  (This was a request – not an order. The idea that anyone should be compelled to “like” something is, we believe, self-evidently wrong).

Drinking Our Own Kool-Aid
Our request met with some friendly but insistent pushback from staff. Several employees expressed discomfort and concern, especially in regards to the prospect of “liking” our Facebook corporate page. Others expressed a desire to maintain separate personal and professional identities on social media, both for privacy concerns, and because of a desire to control their own professional brand. A further concern was that they didn’t want their own personal social media activity – including the friends they know, the posts they like, and the contents of their wall – to have a negative impact on the firm’s brand, a concern shared by management.

Two clear camps emerged from this debate. The first camp held the position that employees with a social media presence should act as exemplars of their brands; the second camp maintained that personal and professional social media presences should never mix.

It’s clear that this issue touched a nerve, people feel very strongly about it, and because we doubt that we’re the only company debating the issue of where the boundaries lie, we wanted to investigate it further.  What follows is my thoughts on the issue, along with some advice about the best way to handle it.

Separate But Intersecting Social Media Spheres
While we exist in the physical world as a single person with a single identity, our typical social media existence entails three, entirely distinct, but intersecting spheres of activity that can be illustrated in the following Venn diagram:

 Social Spheres

The personal brand represents our non-work persona as we present ourselves online – ourselves as sports fans, our interests in gardening or art, family relations, and so on. Here is where we share and engage with others via personal networking. This sphere also includes activity on blogs, forums, and other channels where we present our non-professional sides.

Next is our professional brand. This sphere represents  our online presence presenting our professional identities.  For example, this blog article would be part of my personal professional brand, as my Linkedin profile would be. This sphere includes activity such as official quotations in a spokesperson role, interviews, and speaking as an expert at conferences and other events. By definition, the professional brand is our outward facing, professional brand image.

Finally, we have the company brand. For the purposes of this article, the company brand represents activity associated with who we work for, and all the implications that are attached to that brand. The brand for who we work has discrete impacts on our personal and professional brands. For example – if one happened to work for a firm such as Goldman Sachs -- especially in light of the events of the housing market collapse -- there will be implications (justified or not) that will produce very different personal and professional brand interactions than, say, if one worked for a regional law firm, Johnson & Johnson, or Google.

I call the intersecting areas among the three spheres overlaps. Between the company and professional brand spheres is the career overlap; between the company and personal brand spheres is the cultural overlap; and between the personal and professional spheres is the developmental overlap. All of these intersections influence the different ways that we express ourselves over social media, and how we manage the identities associated with such behavior.

The Facebook Problem
One  common question that kept arising in our internal debates was, “how do I handle my Facebook presence?”  The issue of overlapping identities is much more acute on Facebook than it is on Twitter or Linkedin, because the latter two platforms more easily allow the management of multiple social media identities. Most of the people we talked to deal with the problems in one of two ways:

The “Chinese Wall” approach

A common approach is to completely wall off the personal and professional branding spheres, making one’s online and professional identities as separate as possible. This approach involves creation of separate or hidden online personas for interaction with certain communities and services. There are distinct advantages and disadvantages of this approach.

Pros: This approach ensures that your personal and professional identities are separate. It is aimed at making the developmental overlap as small as possible, and thus easily managed and controlled. Working in certain industries -- such as in the securities or defense industries, or other field where client information must remain private --  – may mandate this approach.

Cons: This approach makes it harder to leverage personal relationships developed in the cultural overlap and transfer them to the career overlap. Having relations that can cross the overlaps can help someone develop opportunities that exist in both, such as with classic networking, which often involves finding a new or better job. 

Social media users who use this approach will make heavy use of psuedonymity and make use of platforms supporting this, for example, Twitter, phpboard forums, Reddit, and Google Plus where the email address and account name is obscured from real life identity. A very few performing artists such as the international club music superstars Daft Punk use this approach as well.

The “Living Brand” approach

This is the preferred method for small business owners, certain CEOs, many performing artists, and general online personalities. Those who are Living Brands heavily overlap their personal, professional and company spheres.  The exemplary spokesman for this approach is Warren Buffett, whose firm Berkshire Hathaway is practically inseparable from his own personality. Bufettt also lives a relatively transparent, if ordinary, public life. This approach is also the method used by performing stars and media celebrities of all kinds. (Curiously, some figures have huge overlap between their company and professional spheres, yet work to keep their personal sphere overlap to a minimum.)

Is There a Correct Approach?

The answer really depends on your situation. In terms of professional development, it’s important to review your use of social media channels and decide what you want your personal brand image to reflect. One can say that our composite personal brand images are composed of the “colors” that are expressed from our different brand spheres, and we have to decide what the best mix is. A large part of this decision depends on what your personal and professional goals are.  How we are perceived is as much based on who we associate with as it is based on what we do or say.

Here are a few suggestions for sorting out your options –

  • Review your friends list. Because on Facebook it is possible for newsfeeds to cross-pollinate each other, review who you are friends with.  As friends can comment on each others walls and respond to your posts, impressions can be created and destroyed based on how you interact with your friends during wall post discussions. One useful tactic is to learn how to create custom lists in Facebook and become familiar with how Circles work in Google+. The goal here is to be able to shoot content out to who you want when you want to. Your post on NASCAR racing may not be that interesting to your professional colleague with whom you have a vendor relationship, even if you are both friends outside of the job.
  • Understand your security settings. This is especially important for those who are in outward- facing corporate roles or for those who hold C-suite positions. Especially if you take the Living Brand approach, your personal networks can be compromised if your professional identity is and vice versa, and both of these situations can have huge negative impacts on your company’s brand – for example, if someone posted inflammatory screeds on an area maintained by a well-known CEO.
  • Understand and use your persona. Your persona, or identity, on various networks can and will vary, depending on which networks you use and the content you share to them. But skilled and appropriate use of one brand sphere can open up opportunities in another. The classic example of this is when a relationship from the cultural overlap (company<>personal) assists in enhancing your profile in the career overlap (company<>professional). Making close friendships in business can create fulfilling personal relationships, after all.
  • The two approaches are not opposed, but exist on a continuum. In practice, most of us actually  fall somewhere between “Chinese Wall” and “Living Brand,” depending on our personal goals and the situation in which we find ourselves professionally and personally. As we make our journey personally and in our careers, adjusting this position on the continuum can make new opportunities available and help enhance our personal brand effectiveness. For example, switching to a more “Chinese Wall” approach can increase an image of professional conduct necessary to succeed in certain industries, while moving over to more of a “Living Brand” method can make things easier when starting your own business.

Keeping it all together
Finding the point of optimal convergence for the three overlapping spheres of social media engagement is tricky. Employees of companies will not always be at a particular firm for all of their professional lives, people change their associations, and change themselves over time. There are no right or wrong answers or universal rules dictating what individuals and brands should do. But understanding the relationships of our various personal brand spheres and how they interact can greatly enhance the amount of control that we – as individuals, employees, and brand representatives -- have over our social media presences, facilitating conversations that are more meaningful, convincing, and authentic.

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