Common Sense, For When Your Brand Won’t Save You

by on 10/29/2010 • 16 Comments | Branding

Brands have always walked around with a sense of entitlement. Whether we’re talking about a celebrity, a company responsible for a popular product or service, or someone who deems themselves Internet famous, there’s this idea that when you ARE the law, you’re above it and things simply don’t apply to you. And for a really long time, this thinking was okay. It was okay because these brands owned the media and, by association, the conversation. They were the content creators, spitting out ads, commercials and press releases that the public had no choice but to willingly swallow. Because when you’re only recourse is to ‘write a letter’ that will sit fragmented from the thousands of people who feel the same way you do, you often choose not to write it.*

But that was then.

Today, brands are accountable. They’re accountable because consumers are connected. Through the help of blogs, tweets and updates, we’re just as much the content creator that big brands are. And even more powerful, we can now use these networks to band together over issues and use our combined voices to demand change or, at least, a public apology and promise to do better.

Earlier this week the Internet was set aflame when Marie Claire columnist Maura Kelly published a pieced called Should “Fatties” Get a Room (Even On Television)? on the Marie Claire blog. Maura answered her own question, saying yes, the fatties should get a room because she finds it “aesthetically displeasing” to watch fat people do anything, especially watching “people with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other”. And she said it all while wearing the Marie Claire jersey. Stay classy, Maura!

My head about exploded when I read Maura’s post. Not because of how apparent her own issues with weight were, but because, for some reason, she thought it was okay to post that rubbish under the Marie Claire brand. Either thinking that her brand was enough to warrant it or that the Marie Claire brand was strong enough to weather it.

She was wrong. Your brand is not strong enough that common sense does not apply to you. Marie Claire’s wasn’t, Facebook’s wasn’t, BP’s wasn’t, and neither is yours.

It’s often infuriating to spend any time in social media. I get enraged when I head to Twitter and watch people burning themselves and others thinking their “brand” will make it okay. As if they’ve “earned” the right to not have to honor basic tenents of social interaction and human decency. I’m sorry, but you haven’t. You may be branded, but you still need to act like a human. And if you don’t, if you act like you’re above it and you’re better than your audience, people are going to take you to task. They’re either going to do it publicly like what happened with Marie Claire, or they’ll do it privately by simply avoiding you and whatever service it is you offer.

How do you act with common sense on the Internet? It’s really not that hard. Here’s where I’d start to help you avoid killing the brand you worked so hard to create:

Watch how you mix business and personal

Yes, social media has opened up the door for brands to become human again. And that’s awesome. But it doesn’t mean that everything is now fair game. During the 7 Realities of Blogging For Bucks keynote at BlogWorld, Sonia Simone spoke about how no one actually wants true transparency. We only want it when it’s appropriate. Sonia mentioned how folks like Naomi Dunford and Johnny B Truant do this really well because they know how to maintain their authority, but also be human and funny at the same time. You want to be the best version of yourself, and maybe that means NOT showing the world every insecurity you have by constantly talking about yourself or passing judgments on others.

Remember your team jersey

Even if the brand you wear is a personal one, remember that you’re wearing it every time you open your mouth and the effect it may have on your audience, your business contacts and those around you. Your “brand” is not an excuse for being a jerk, just like “authenticity” isn’t either. Before you say or publish something, remember the jersey you’re always wearing and ask yourself if this will build it or take away from it. If it’s going to detract from it – is it worth it?

Don’t be a jerk

Social media has NOT changed the basic rules of communication and behavior. Just because legal doesn’t have to approve your tweets doesn’t mean you can use them to smash someone in the face with a baseball bat. Use common sense. As Scott Stratten says, you should never say anything in social media that you don’t want to see on a billboard with your name, logo, face, and phone number attached, with your client/boss/mother driving by. That sounds like a pretty good rule to me.

When in doubt, run it by someone

If you’re reading over a blog post and you’re not sure if you should publish it, ask someone else. If you’re about to publish a tweet and your hands are still shaking, check with someone first. The Internet is permanent. Tomorrow is ONLY a new day when you didn’t publish something to incite a riot the day before. Sometimes you’re not the best person to decide if what you’re about to say works with your brand. Find the person who is.

If this doesn’t sound like rocket science, it’s because it’s not. It’s common sense, which is often something we ignore in our attempt to be the big, bad brand we want to be. Use social media to interact, engage and have fun, but also use it to be smart. The best advice anyone can give you in social media is to use common sense and remember that you’re a person talking to other people. Because when you’re shiny brand won’t save you, falling back on common sense might.

*Unless you’re my father. Then you spend hours in your home office dictating these letters to your young daughter, accidentally improving her typing skills and pretty much ensuring she grows up to become a jilted blogger. True story.

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About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.

Get social with Lisa at Twitter

16 thoughts on “Common Sense, For When Your Brand Won’t Save You

  1. Lisa, this wins best post of the week award in my book. Well done, as usual. And I’m taking it to heart in my own life. It’s easy for folks to forget where they are sometimes. All the noise and commotion can compel us to get swept up and blurt out random words of sheer thoughtlessness. I suppose we’re all guilty of it at times. And we (I) sometimes forget that most of these people (in social networking) don’t really know us well enough to understand the context of all we say. I’m fully convinced some people absolutely mean what they say, and others – well, not so much, but how do we really know? If normally nice people can appear like jerks on the web, then it goes to show us how jerks are often amplified on the web. Here’s hoping such posts alert us all to the fact that kindness and civility can go a long way to establishing and building a persona that will help everybody.

    • Thanks for much for the comment, Randy. I think you’re totally right. People get caught up in the commotion of the Web that sometimes they forget that people are reading what they’re saying and that it’s touching someone else. There is no context in a 140 character tweet and it’s really easy for things to be misconstrued. You have to ask yourself if you’re using the right medium for your message and what you’re really saying. I think if people just stopped and applied some common sense, we’d all be much better off in our online communication. And maybe our offline communication, as well. :)

  2. I have a comment or two to make after reading Maura Kelly’s post that you link to here. First and foremost I agree that people need to be congnizant of what jersey they are wearing before they sit down to write. I don’t think she did that.
    Additionally, I think it’s more her word choice that made this distasteful than her underlying opinion -assuming her initial comments are true, although after seeing the rest of the post and her choice of words I think she exposes her true feelings of overweight people the more she writes.
    She seems to be saying, at the beginning of her piece, that she is distressed by obese people because they aren’t healthy and this causes her concern for their health. If this were indeed her underlying concern she’d have chosen it ‘distresses me’ or ’causes me concern’ to see a “very, very fat person walk across the room”. Instead she used the phrase “aesthetically displeasing” which is saying she is not concerned that they might be doing long term damage to their joints by carrying that much weight as they walk across the room or the stress on their heart, she simply doesn’t like how they look as they do it. And that is just plainly and simply judgemental and rude.

    She also is quick to point out that she has friends that could be considered “plump” as if this excuses her rudeness and judgemental comments because she has friend who are fat. Does it make it ok to tell racist jokes because you have some friends who are african-american? No it doesn’t.

    Ms. Kelly needs to take a good look at her true message here and what it says about her character before she posts such a judgemental viewpoint on any blog but especially on one with a brand attached to it. My mother always taught me if I didn’t have anything nice to say I shouldn’t say anything at all and while that seems like painting with a broad stroke I still think you should consider treating humans like humans not subjects in a narrative for your own insecurities.

    It’s true you never know a person until you walk a mile in their shoes and I challenge Ms. Kelly to walk a mile in one of those “downright obese” people’s shoes to see how it feels to have someone talk that way about you. I am not obese so I have no idea what it would feel like to be judged for it but I am an empathetic human being so I can imagine it doesn’t feel good. Apparently empathy is not something Ms. Kelly was taught in journalism 101.

    • I think Maura learned a good lesson the Web this week. As a former anorexic herself, it’s clear she still has some body issues she hasn’t worked out. I’d say that piece is much more about herself, then the people on the TV screen.

      What was troubling, to me, about that piece was how much we can dehumanize things that we don’t understand. For Maura, the people on the TV screen weren’t even people and that’s why she could speak of them like that. It was all pretty worrisome.

  3. Great advice Lisa but it is tough balancing in a world where your always wearing a team jersey. For me, there’s a bit of jealousy towards those representing brands that can get away with more than others. The unwritten codes of ethics for industries span a wide range, and finding the safe spots can be quite a learning experience.

    • I definitely think it’s a careful line. As transparent as my tweets are, I’ve had to alter them to better reflect the image I want casted on both myself and Outspoken Media. I don’t think it changes your authenticity any, I think it’s about projecting the best version of yourself and the version that would most attract others to you. You’re right in that in can be a learning experience, but I think if you’re applying common sense to most situations, you should be okay. Or at least better than your competition.

  4. Lacking of common sense was/is/will be a recurring problem for many enterprises, and it has appeared many times during the past century, just not in the social media environment.

    It is the result of people using the internet as if they were using a mask. But, nowadays, most of the time you are actually YOU in the internet.

    The moment you realize that your behavior in the net is as representative of you as your handwriting or voice tone, the moment you will start succeeding.

    • I love all of that, thank you! I think you’re totally on point with people using the Internet as a mask and how that doesn’t work anymore. We’re all creating ‘voices’ and ‘brands’ with our interactions on the Web. We should spend more time looking at what we’re putting out there.

      • I feel like it’s always a work in progress. My writing really needs to be refined more to reflect the real me. I feel like a sarcastic bitch in person, yet on the Internet I write with lots of exclamation marks and smiley faces to make sure the right tone is coming across. I need to take a few English classes, I think! I feel it was easier 10 years ago when I had my own business and was working for myself. You didn’t have to think about how many different channels you had to represent yourself across. It seemed much more intimate then.

        Now that I’m writing for a company brand now, it’s easier to tone it down but it is hard to know where to draw the line. I (try) and keep my personal life and new business brand life separate but I’m running into problems already!

        It’s fun though. I love this business.

  5. Hey Lisa! I had a feeling you might be writing about the “fatty” article soon. It’s one thing to have an opinion (as demeaning as it may be) but it’s another to write about it on a major website. The author quickly apologized, but what was she going to say. “Oops sorry, I was just kidding when I said I found fat people disgusting.” No… the damage was done. I keep wondering who approved that though…

    I really take this to heart: “no one actually wants true transparency.” This is one that I tend to struggle with a bit. Here at SEOmoz, Transparency is one of our guiding principles that I not only use in a work setting, but I really live by it outside of work as well.

    There are times when I’m upset about something at work or at someone who’s being a douche. But I also represent a Brand (ok it’s a small brand compared to Marie Claire, BP, etc. but it’s still a brand) and I think about that in every interaction I have both online publicly and even in private. It’s important to me to portray myself as myself but keep the brand in mind at the same time.

    I don’t want to be one of these people who has a different persona online than when you meet me in person. I am the same person in all places. But I am also more than just SEOmoz, obviously. Which means I make the effort sometimes to NOT tweet something that is rolling around in my head when it could mean a huge shit-storm for the company.

    All it takes, as you said, is common sense. If more people would simply think about the repercussions of their actions rather just acting on them willy nilly, brands wouldn’t get into these predicaments (as much).

    • I really have no idea WHAT that woman could have been thinking when she wrote that…or what the person who approved it was thinking, assuming there is someone watching.

      I think you guys at SEOmoz are really interesting. I know Rand has based that company on the idea of transparency — and I think that’s backfired for him at times. People don’t want that much transparency, IMO. They can’t handle it. They want you to pick and choose and give them the best version of yourself, the version that makes them want to learn more. Sometimes I think Rand’s penchant for publicly falling on the sword or sharing more than people need to know, actually gets in SEOmoz’s way more than it helps.

      I don’t think you have to have a different persona, but you can pick which parts of yourself that you share. For me, there are parts of my life that are not for public consumption on Twitter, and then there are parts that I do share. It’ s no less me, but it’s not the entire me. I don’t think my Twitter stream needs to know what I’m doing 24/7. I don’t think they care. They care when what I do/think is relevant to them. And that’s the stuff I try to share. Or I just tweet about things that amuse me. I do that a lot, too. :) I know when I used to over-share about certain aspects of my life people would tell me it made them uncomfortable and looking back, I totally get that. I thin it’s a fine line of share/STFU. :)

      • Totally agree about their being a fine line. I feel like I have that on top of mind all the time. I can see where too much transparency can lead to issues, which is why I like the idea that people don’t really want to know EVERYTHING. I’m pretty open and honest about who I am, but there’s a time and a place for everything. I find that I share a lot more personal stuff on Facebook, than on Twitter. But even then I think, what if someone outside my “group” saw this?

        That’s the key really. Think before hitting enter. And sometimes I need to take my own advice… :)

        Thanks Lisa!

        • I definitely find I share more personal stuff on Facebook than on Twitter. And that’s because I’ve chosen my Facebook network whereas my Twitter network as, for all intents and purposes, chosen me. It’s a different kind of relationships so I think I have different rules for myself as to what’s appropriate. I also try not to expose my real life people to the Twittersphere. I’ve found it usually does more harm than good to have all those eyes and opinions and them. However, I think you do an awesome job portraying yourself online. You’ve shared some personal stuff on Twitter lately and I think it’s been done really well and helped people to feel more connected to you.

  6. I’m finding the comments to the Maura Kelly article oddly fascinating in their near-universal outrage. The original article struck me as something she might well think inside the privacy of her own head or post to a private blog read only by friends, but should never have been allowed to make it to a very public, branded space. Even though I can accept that it was probably written without much thought or sensitivity, it’s still offensive, and I’m not even overweight.

    It’s so easy to overshare on social media that, as you’ve pointed out many times, we really need to establish basic objectives and guidelines for what we’re doing online before getting out there and mouthing off. Great post!

  7. It puzzles me how sometimes people really forget one simple rule: if you wouldn’t say it in front of people in a “real life” situation, then perhaps it’s not a good idea to tweet or blog about it.

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