We create and curate personal profiles, post content and comments, and interact via social media as a normal part of both our personal and professional lives. How we conduct ourselves on the open internet can leave a lasting impression, one not so easily undone if it’s regrettable. The hilarious but compromising selfie you posted on Instagram five years ago is still there for your potential employer to find, judge for what it says about your professionalism, and speculate about what customers might think if they saw it too. That sarcastic but not-so-PC reply to a public post on Facebook or Twitter in a heated moment a decade ago can come back to haunt you. We’re all learning as we go in this new media environment, but any mistakes we make along the way, no matter how much we’ve matured since, are still there for all to see and can have lasting impacts on our careers. Many candidates for political office have been taken down by their past social-media posts and the agents tasked with digging them up (Harris, 2015), and you can be sure that untold numbers of job applicants have similarly scuppered their chances with similar cavalier shares. Some guidance about what can be done about those mistakes, as well as how to conduct ourselves properly moving forward, can help improve your employability (adapted from Business Communication for Success, 2015, 9.1).
Virginia Shea’s Rules of Netiquette
- Remember the human on the other side of the electronic communication.
- Adhere to the same standards of behaviour online that you follow in real life.
- Know where you are in cyberspace.
- Respect other people’s time and bandwidth.
- Make yourself look good online.
- Share expert knowledge.
- Keep flame wars under control.
- Respect other people’s privacy.
- Don’t abuse your power.
- Be forgiving of other people’s mistakes (Shea, 1994).
Her rules speak for themselves and remind us that the golden rule (treat others as you would like to be treated) is relevant wherever there is human interaction (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 9.1).
Your writing in a business context means that you represent yourself and your company. What you write and how you write it can be part of your company’s success but can also expose it to unintended consequences and legal responsibility. When you write, keep in mind that your words will keep on existing long after you have moved on to other projects. They can become an issue if they exaggerate, state false claims, or defame a person or legal entity such as a competing company. Another issue is plagiarism — using someone else’s writing without giving credit to the source. Whether the “cribbed” material is taken from a printed book, a website, or a blog, plagiarism is a violation of copyright law and may also violate your company policies. Industry standards often have legal aspects that must be respected and cannot be ignored. For the writer this can be a challenge, but it can be a fun challenge with rewarding results.
The rapid pace of technology means that the law cannot always stay current with the realities of business communication. Computers had been in use for a couple of decades before the Copyright Act of 1985 was amended in 1997 to deal with internet-enabled copyright infringement. Technology advanced even further before the next major amendment came with the Copyright Modernization Act of 2012. Developments since then will continue to demand new laws to clarify what is fair and ethical, what should be prohibited, and who owns the rights to what.
For example, suppose your supervisor asks you to use your Facebook page or Twitter account to give an occasional “plug” to your company’s products. Are you obligated to comply? If you later change jobs, who owns your posts or tweets—are they yours, or does your now-former employer have a right to them? And what about your network of “friends”? Can your employer use their contact information to send marketing messages? These and many other questions remain to be answered as technology, industry practices, and legislation evolve (Tahmincioglu, 2009).
What’s wrong with the two sentences above? They may land you and your company in court. The first sentence makes a subjective and vague claim of one product being better than another, stating it as if it were a fact. The next sentence claims that the competitor’s product is dangerous. Even if this is true, the writer’s ability to prove that claim beyond a reasonable doubt may be limited, yet the claim is — again — stated as fact. From the other company’s perspective, the second sentence may be considered libel or defamation.
Libel is the written form of defamation (= a false statement that damages a reputation). If a false statement of fact that concerns and harms the person defamed is published—including publication in a digital or online environment—the author of that statement may be sued for libel. If the person defamed is a public figure, he/she must prove malice or the intention to do harm, but if the victim is a private person, libel applies even if the offence cannot be proven to be malicious. You have a Charter right to express your opinion (section 2[b]), but the words you use and how you use them, including the context, are relevant to their interpretation as opinion versus fact. Always be careful to qualify what you write and to do no harm (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 4.5).
Using Social Media Professionally
Review sites, blogs, tweets, and online community forums are some of the continually developing means of social media being harnessed by business and industry to reach customers and other stakeholders. People’s comfort in the online environment forces businesses to market and interact there or risk a massive loss in sales and interest. Though most users learn how to use social media as an extension or facilitator of their social lives, using the same platforms for professional purposes requires some change in behaviour.
First, recognize that every modern business or organization should have a social media presence in the sites they expect their customer base to frequent, especially popular sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Messaging here must be consistent across the platforms when alerting the customer base of important information such as special events, deals, and other news.
Next, follow expert advice on how to properly take advantage of social media to promote your operation and reach people. Large companies dedicate personnel to running their social media presence, but small businesses can do much of it themselves if they follow some reasonable online advice. Companies should stay on trend by continually searching out and implementing the latest advice.
Finally, always consider how the sites you access and what you post represent you and your employer, even if you think others don’t know where you work or who you are. Internet service providers (ISPs) are required by law to archive information concerning the use and traffic of information that can become available under subpoena. Any move you make leaves digital footprints, so you will have to answer for any misstep that brings shame upon you or your company (Business Communication for Success, 2015, 19.4).
Copyright Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. C-42). Justice Laws Website. https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/c-42/
Copyright Modernization Act. (S.C. 2012, c. 20). Justice Laws Website. https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/annualstatutes/2012_20/page-1.html
Harris, K. (2015, September 17). How political operatives dig up dirt to take down candidates. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canada-election-2015-vetting-candidates-media-1.3229594
McLean, S. (2015). Business communication for success. Flat World Knowledge.
Tahmincioglu, E. (2009, October 11). Your boss wants you on Twitter: Companies recognizing value of having workers promote products. MSNBC Careers. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/33090717/ns/business-careers.