“Will I get in trouble if I share this online?”

A decade ago, while I was traveling back from Mumbai to Bengaluru after a work trip, I got a call from my boss (the India head) while I was in a cab (from the airport). He told me that the regional office is seriously upset because they found a tweet by me that sounded disparaging to a regional client (not an India client at that point). I asked him for more details and he only told me the client’s name – he did not have more details. I asked him what he wanted me to do and he asked me if I could delete the tweet.

That seemed fair, so I said I will search the tweet (based on the client’s name) and delete it and will let him know.

I searched (while in the cab), but couldn’t find anything at all in the past 6-12 months (searched by client name + my handle; Twitter’s search was far less impressive back then, a decade+ ago). I left it for the next day (a working day).

The next day I told him my futile search and he had no clue about the specifics either. It was only later in the day that I got to know the details.

1. It was a tweet from 3 months ago!!
2. Even more bizarre – I had mentioned the name of the client’s partner and had mentioned that their campaign was pretty sad! I had not mentioned the client’s name!
3. It seems the client’s social media monitoring report flagged this as ‘negative sentiment’ by an ‘A list influencer’ (according to the social media monitoring team’s parameters. I had a paltry number of followers on Twitter a decade ago; I still do – but I digress).

Now that I knew the details, I searched for the tweet and finally found it. And I deleted it.

I heard from my boss again the next day where he mentioned that the regional team was seriously upset about my tweet considering I was the India digital lead for the agency and coming from me, it made the opinion more damaging to the regional client’s partner.

I offered to resign too, but my boss asked me not to overreact and got my back.

I recalled this incident from a decade ago when someone reached out to me via direct message to explain that they had deleted a comment to one of my posts on LinkedIn (I had liked and appreciated a new campaign; they had argued against it, and I responded offering my perspective in reply) because they had found out that the campaign was from one of their clients (that they personally don’t handle, but was a client of the company nonetheless).

I told the person that deleting the comment was a prudent decision and thanked them for letting me know.

I remember another instance where I had some amount of pressure to stop doing something online 🙂 This was during my daily tweeting against HDFC Bank’s shady fees on savings accounts. I was at Ogilvy at that time and I believe someone from HDFC did reach out to Ogilvy India CEO and he asked me if I intend to continue the daily tweeting. This, was when HDFC Bank was not a client of Ogilvy at all (or even any of the other WPP agencies from what I understood).

I said yes, I do intend to continue my daily tweeting. And the CEO just said ‘fine’ and he got my back (against whomsoever it was who had asked him about it).

For most working professionals, this is a constant query, confusion, fear, and source of trepidation: “What if something I share online annoys a client, partner, my own company (etc.)?”

For most working professionals, there could be at least one topic that may be sacrosanct in terms of not commenting about them. In most agency-client scenarios, it may be the client (who pays money to the agency and is hence in a more authoritative position to get annoyed).

Other professional relationships that may be in a similar position:

  • employee and employer (brand)
  • employee and subsidiary company of the employer
  • employee (for instance, in a bank) and a very larger customer brand (the more senior the employee, the more the large customer’s annoyance)
  • student (for instance, in a college) and college administration

I’m sure there could be a lot more.

No matter how you frame your not-so-charitable opinion, a client could always find ways to get annoyed and make it known to you (like in my case – through my boss).

You may question the broader intent for the need to talk about any client or company (that you work in) or college (that you study in) at all online. But such opinions are just part of the larger content pool that one naturally dips into to share content online. Most brands put themselves out there with public communication artefacts like advertisements, are mentioned in news, are talked about by others over something, among others. You may be thinking that you are commenting about the ad, news, or what people are talking about, but the company may see it differently – as a senior employee, an employee, a student (etc.) having an opinion that seems detrimental to the brand/organization in question.

I address this aspect in my book on personal branding. A simple thumb-rule is to consider the brands or organization that you talk/opine about and look at how they may be connected to you (if at all) – perhaps it is an ex-client, perhaps it was a company you were employed in earlier, perhaps you know a close friend in that organization, perhaps it is a client of a sister concern of your current employer… among other potential connections.

This is a quick check you can do before airing your perspective about the company/organization, and deciding whether you want to share it at all, or perhaps focus more effort in framing it as appropriately as possible if you are still compelled to share something.

I generally do not share anything online about current clients that seem adverse; this is just common sense – if I have a point of view, I’d rather share it with them directly. With ex-clients and any other organization, I always stick to the basic rule I ask people to stick to – avoid negative extremes.

This one rule has always, always helped me. It may lead to less polarizing content, and since polarizing content is what really gets more traction, followers, and reaction these days, it is perhaps very tempting to use extremes to describe how you feel. So, avoiding the use of negative extremes is extremely useful in setting the tone of your perspective appropriately.

The other part that helps is consistency, and this doesn’t manifest itself in one instance – it is earned over a period of time. If you consistently talk about many companies/brands regularly, and all of those mentions are framed without negative extremes, that puts you in a reasonable position when you share a not-so-charitable remark about a company known to you/close to you. If there’s history, your one instance may not be seen in isolation and may be seen as part of your larger oeuvre (of online content). Consistency also helps avoid allegations of professional envy/jealousy or rivalry while you opine on rival/competing brands. But consistency, as a reason, may not stop your brand’s rivals from sniping at your/your brand’s work in response.

On the other side of things, from a personal branding point of view, if you avoid sharing your views on other brands besides your own (positive views, obviously), your content may seem rather tame and safe. Most ad and PR agency folks tread on the side of safety by not saying anything even marginally negative about any other brand at all. The more senior the person, the more the trepidation on this front.

I usually ask the person (when I’m working with them on their personal branding exercise) to write draft notes on such instances (and not share them online). The idea is to get that opinion out of the person even though it is not shared with the world. And then, I work with them in toning down negative extremes and making the negative/critical opinion seem fair, gracious, or reasonable. This is a language skill that can be learned and improved upon over time – it’s a habit that can be cultivated.

But the more you opine on other brands/companies, the more out there your content would seem. And the more reasonably you frame those views, without sounding vituperative, vindictive, harsh, or pointless, the better it is from your personal brand point of view. It presents you as a thoughtful, reasonably brave person who doesn’t shy from sharing a point of view when there is a need.

However, the basic rule still remains – if you can share your view with someone in the target organization directly (because you know someone there fairly well), choose direct, one-to-one communication by default. Besides my sharing of content in public, I share direct feedback to more than 4-5 people every week – you just don’t see it because it is not meant for the public 🙂

Related reading:
1. “I want to keep a low profile” vs. Personal branding
2. How to make your social media presence worthwhile and stay largely out of trouble

Cover picture courtesy: Toledo Blade