The fast-paced, colloquial nature of social media makes blunders all too easy. Remember KitchenAid’s offensive tweet about Obama’s grandma following the first presidential debate, Kenneth Cole using the revolution in Cairo to promote his spring collection, or Nestle sending widely criticized responses to environmentalists on its Facebook page?
These and other cautionary tales reveal how much damage a single tweet or status update can do to the integrity of a brand. Yet social media is new enough that there is no real road map for how to behave. This dichotomy—between understanding what to do and the potential fallout from not understanding—is enough to concern anyone who relies professionally on social media. This includes, at a growing rate, meeting planners dependent on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other tools to promote their events and company.
“You are your best advertising,” says Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Texas. “If you are not representing yourself appropriately on social media (i.e., in every photo you take, you are holding a glass of wine or a martini), you are missing an opportunity to stand apart from your competitor. Every post you make is a reflection of who you are and what you stand for in business and in life.”
With that in mind, we turned to Gottsman and Lydia Ramsey, another etiquette expert and the author of books including Manners That Sell, to draft a list of social media do’s and don’ts. Heed their wisdom, and you can avoid the kind of embarrassing missteps that have led countless others off the ledge of propriety.
* Be grammatically correct.
When writing documents for work, people are generally diligent about accuracy, making sure there are no spelling mistakes or grammatical errors that reflect poorly on their intelligence or thoughtfulness. Yet when writing posts in the world of social media—a world in which LOL and “how r u?” are commonplace— these standards often go out the window.
“People tend to get too casual and overuse text speak, under use punctuation and let grammar take a back seat,” Gottsman says. Yes, it’s OK to shorten words here and there and be a bit more casual, but using abundant abbreviations and posting updates with mistakes isn’t informal—it’s sloppy. Ramsey recommends copying and pasting social media posts into Microsoft Word to do a review of spelling and grammar. It doesn’t take long, but could save you from sending a message with an embarrassing error.
* Be professional.
Many people rely on a single Twitter or Facebook account for both their professional and personal networking. But while this dual-purpose account may be easier to manage, it can lead to a dangerous blurring of lines.
On a personal page, for instance, it’s generally considered fine to post pictures of yourself partying or with alcohol. While those are innocuous to friends, a colleague or attendee could see such pictures as a sign that you lack professionalism and taste. “I always caution businesses to require their social media managers to avoid crossover wherever possible when using social media tools,” Gottsman says. “For example, personal and business accounts shouldn’t be accessible by the same HootSuite or Tweetdeck account. Instead, create a separate account for personal and another for business.”
* Overdo it
Everyone has that Facebook friend who posts seemingly 100 times a day. Don’t be that person; keep your presence to a minimum. As seductive as social media can be, getting too involved can also be a distraction from other job responsibilities, not to mention make it look like you have nothing better going on.
To avoid over-inundation, take this two-prong approach: Choose just two to three social media channels to focus on, and use them to post no more than four or five times a day. “If I see tweets piling up and piling up, I stop reading those. My eyes glaze over,” says Ramsey. One handy tool for keeping your post-count down is Buffer, which allows you to schedule a set number of tweets, status updates or LinkedIn messages a day; anything more than the set amount gets added to a queue for the following day.
* Beg or act desperate
Social media can serve as a powerful tool to recruit attendees for your event. But there’s a thin line between asking and begging, and it should never be crossed. Ramsey says she’s often seen planners start out relaxed in their event-promotion messaging, only to get more aggressive as they seek to fill more slots. “You don’t want to get into desperate mode,” Ramsey says. “I’m sure people think that’ll be a draw, but it’s a turnoff.”
* Vent or get angery
When you’re ticked off about something, it’s all too easy to use social media to fire off a quick, heated rant, but doing so could haunt you well past the time when your anger has subsided. “Consistently posting updates that are negative tarnishes your reputation and will result in sending a negative image to your current and future clients,” Gottsman says. She suggests this litmus test: “Ask yourself if you’d be comfortable sharing the update with your mother or supervisor, word for word. If not, step away from the screen and gain your composure!”
You should also log off if you’re tired, intoxicated, jet-lagged or otherwise lacking in common self-censorship. Remember that an irate social media post, because it counts as online publishing, can also get you accused of libel.
* Try to hard to be funny
Social media lends itself well to humor, and it is definitely possible to balance professionalism with wit. But without the advantage of conveying actual tone of voice or making eye contact, attempted humor can quickly slip into offensive territory. This is especially true when referencing sensitive current-affair topics, as Kenneth Cole did in his widely derided post (“Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online”) and KitchenAid did in its tweet (“Obamas gma even knew it was going 2 b bad! ‘She died 3 days b4 he became president’”). If you’re unsure if what you’re saying is humorous or offensive, run it by someone else first. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.