Walking the Line

May 13, 2011

By Meredith Schwartz


We're often told that social media demands "personality" - that you share your opinions and sense of humor with the world, offering not a professional persona - one in which all the bumps have been carefully smoothed or at least hidden - but a "real person" for customers to connect to.

However being yourself can be a tricky business in the business world. It's all but impossible to have an opinion that no one disagrees with - and then you may have driven away a potential customer. Even if you stay resolutely away from politics and religion, the Harry Potter movies, and other hot button issues, one person's endearing quirk is another's irritating over-share.

If you have an employee blogging, Tweeting, or posting to Facebook for you, that person is likely to be less effective at creating a sense of personality, simply because they have an additional audience - you. They aren't likely to go out on a limb in a way that will imperil their job security, especially in this economic climate.

On the other hand, the freedom that self-employed entrepreneurs have to speak their mind is not always an advantage. The chances of munching a foot sandwich go up correspondingly, especially given the immediacy of mediums that promote insta-sharing without time for second thoughts.

For one example, there's North Carolina bakery Crumb, whose tagline, meant to be, presumably, funny, ended up offending a bunch of people instead.

Taglines, of course, are not a uniquely Internet phenomena. But the next step is - the owners complained about the complaints on Twitter. Insulted consumers complained about the complaining about the complaints on Facebook.

The resulting drama spread far beyond the local marketplace - so much so that your New York-based editor, months later, remembered to Google "cupcake shop insults fat people" for her go-to example - and had it pop right up as the first result.

• The Internet takes your remarks out of their personal context. Of course, that's not to say no one ever got insulted in person, but putting them online for strangers to see who don't know you, don't know how you talk and whether you are serious or joking adds another level of potential for offense, compared to your next door neighbor. No amount of emoticons can completely bridge that gap. And people who aren't looking you in the eye are a lot less inhibited about expressing their outrage in return.

The Internet takes your remarks out of their local context. If you really tick someone off, people all over the country are going to hear about it. And while that may not matter to your bottom line, unless you're trying to grow a national Web business beyond your physical catchment area, it does mean they have no incentive to smooth things over lest things be awkward when you run into each other on the street.

• The Internet makes things last forever - unless, of course, you want them to. It was a lot easier to live down the occasional snafu when it only existed in the unreliable memory of busy humans. Is this kind of thing really what you want to show up when you are Googled by a new potential supplier - or bank manager?

Taking things down or making them private after the fact tends to only make things worse, as caches and screenshots still exist and now you look like you're staging a cover-up.

If you already screwed up and want to contain the damages, my best advice is to apologize quickly and fully (no weasel words like "if"). Explanations of what you were thinking should be brief and phrased so that they can't be mistaken for excuses or justifications. Ideally, the apology should be accompanied by a realistic plan to prevent a recurrence of the specific problem.

But that doesn't help with preventing a problem in the first place. Obviously I have no magic bullet, or I'd be selling it on the Internet and getting rich quick. But my best advice is:

1) Institute a waiting period or a second pair of eyes, or both, for any post you think may have the potential to offend. Ideally the second pair of eyes is someone who doesn't always agree with you, and doesn't depend on you for a paycheck. A business partner or spouse, if available - if not, the kind of friend who will tell you when your hair looks funny.

2) Think in terms of your businesses' personality, rather than your personal personality. Presumably if you started the store it expresses some aspect of your self, but that doesn't mean it has to express every aspect. You might like both spa treatments and edgy humor, but the spa store and the edgy humor store should have very different Twitter personas, unless you want to restrict your clientele to only people who like both.

3) Accept that you can't please all of the people all of the time. No matter how careful you are, sometimes, you are going to tick people off - especially if you have the edgy humor store.

4) If it's not a misunderstanding, you meant what they heard and still mean it; and if the thing that offended them is central to your business model (or to your ethics), then stand by it and take the consequences. The people you offend under those conditions were probably never going to be happy customers of yours in the long haul anyway, and you may be pleasantly surprised to see your regulars rallying round in support.