When Dan Cathy decided to verbalize his personal religious beliefs, he assumed he could do so without wearing his Chick-fil-a CEO hat. What followed were weeks of defending his position and Chick-fil-a executives desperately trying to mitigate the various verbal assaults, written diatribe, and physical store protests. While Chick-fil-a attracted an equal number of supporters—many stores saw some of their best sales in years—there was no doubt that Cathy learned a valuable lesson:
As the leader of a company, you cannot simply put a moat around your personal actions and statements.
Although Cathy later reached out to the same gay-rights activists that he had scorned—and built a valuable bridge of peace—there’s no doubt that a small segment of the population will forever look at Chick-fil-a’s reputation a whole lot differently.
While you may expect a CEO to realize that their words and actions are intricately meshed with those of the company they run, that same accountability also runs the full stretch of the corporate ladder. During the same reputation crisis, Vante’s Adam Smith decided to post a video of himself berating a Chick-fil-a employee at Tuscon drive-thru. Smith was subsequently fired from his company, while the calm, smiling fast food worker earned a lot of kudos for Chick-fil-a for not once taking Smith’s vitriol-infused bait.
You are what you tweet
The idea that you can’t simply draw a line in the sand between your personal and business reputation is reinforced on the popular social networking site Twitter. With hundreds of millions of daily users, it doesn’t take much digging around before you find examples where any line becomes blurred. Many Twitter users attempt to build their very own trench around their personal account, by adding text to their Twitter bio that reads something like, “Tweets are my own views, and not that of my employer.” Like me, you may read that and ask yourself, “well of course they’re your views, whose else would they be?”
Despite your best efforts to carefully craft your online reputation, as you learned on Day 1, your true character always has a way of sticking its ugly head into a conversation when you least expect it. If something similar to the following scenario hasn’t happened to you yet, it will at some point.
It’s late on a Friday. You’re really looking forward to the weekend. The boss has been on your case all day and you have that big new client that is a royal pain in your behind. As you leave for the day, you decide to tweet your immense relief that the weekend has finally arrived. You pull up Twitter and tweet the following to your 85 closest friends and family:
It’s the weekend! My boss can kiss my butt, and so can my new client. I plan on a very big hangover tomorrow!
Only, you forgot to log out of the company Twitter account. The one with over 35,000 followers. The one read by both your boss and your new client.
You can imagine the consequences, but the big question is, why tweet that at all? Ever? From any Twitter account? Even if your boss is not following you on Twitter, at some point a disgruntled coworker might show it to them, or a potential employer discovers it during the hiring process.
You cannot divide your personal reputation from you business one. No matter how hard you try.
You can’t keep it offline
Just as you cannot keep your personal and corporate reputations from meshing, the same goes for how you act offline versus your online self. Cory Booker, former Mayor of Newark, and current United States Senator almost derailed his flawless political reputation when it came to light that he was tweeting and texting with Lynsie Lee, a stripper in Portland, Oregon. Fortunately for Booker, he was single, the tweets were innocuous, and he didn’t send her any photos of his private parts. Anthony Weiner, on the other hand, well, we all know how that story ended.
You simply cannot pretend to have an online reputation that is sheltered from the one of you offline. The two will always find a way to converge. It could be someone sharing a photo of you smoking a bong (Michael Phelps), or perhaps a video is posted showing one of your employees molesting pizza ingredients (Domino’s Pizza). And it doesn’t even have to be at the national level. You may have a great online reputation, but when people finally meet you at an industry conference, they discover that you like to drink too much and grope members of the opposite sex. Don’t you think that will make it back to the online circles you’ve worked so hard to impress?
Whether it’s something you’ve accidentally posted to Twitter (KitchenAid), an ill-advised statement you made when you thought no one was recording you (Mitt Romney), or just a case of being friends with someone that could tarnish your reputation (Booker), at some point you will realize that you cannot separate your online reputation from your offline actions, nor your personal opinions from those of your corporate brand.