Are you risking your career on social media?

Social media has rapidly transformed our professional and personal worlds, enabling us to communicate, work and influence people more effectively.

Yet it often appears to be a powerful tool that human beings are not actually ready to handle, raising ever more questions about how it can be used in a positive rather than negative way.

It’s hard to forget one of the most widely reported social media storms in recent memory when Justine Sacco, a then 30 year-old PR executive at American digital media conglomerate IAC in 2013 posted an ill-judged tweet about AIDS to her 170 followers before boarding a flight to South Africa.

She slept through much of the 11 hour flight to Cape Town, blissfully unaware that her Twitter account was trending due to the building global outrage of tens of thousands of people about her perceived racism.

Sacco later told the New York Times of her shock when she landed and her phone exploded with messages. Her life as she knew it also blew up. She claimed that the context of her tweet had been completely misunderstood, but she still lost the job she loved.

Amid the collective fury, the gleeful public shaming of her mistake was also ugly. Many appeared to take pleasure in the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet. “I cried out my body weight in the first 24 hours,” she told the Times. “It was incredibly traumatic.”

And yet social media has also triumphed during other periods of trauma. As knife-wielding terrorists rampaged across London Bridge on a balmy Saturday evening in early May, friends of missing journalist George Ho desperately tried to locate him with the help of Twitter. Eventually he was found, badly injured but alive.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, British humour on Twitter also lifted the public mood, with #ThingsThatLeaveBritainReeling attracting many witty responses to convey resilience in the face of terrorism.

Social media has huge benefits but must also be handled with care, believes Angela Corbo, an assistant professor at Widener University, Pennsylvania.

“What I love about social media is that it creates a sense of community and I think people who have like-minded ideas tend to gravitate towards certain groups or pages on Facebook, so it creates a community that has so many wonderful attributes,” she said.

“But it’s also dangerous because if that’s the only place where you’re getting the information and you’re not asking more questions then you have one-sided information that may or may not be true.”

Educators and influencers have a responsibility to help younger social media users and the public in general to probe information sources critically.

“As news consumers we want the public to think did I get a complete story? Am I only getting a one-sided piece of this? Did I get a quote from somebody who is an activist or did someone actually vet the process as the news was coming forward?” she said.

“When we’re making a big purchase, we know we should look at other pieces of information but it surprises me that when we make political decisions, like how to vote or even just on how we feel about a pressing issue, people don’t take the time to make sure they’re looking at different sides.”

Users should also be personally responsible for what they posted and the normal rules for civil discourse, or a regular face to face conversation, should apply, argued Corbo.

“My rule of thumb is don’t post or tweet anything that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see,” she said, urging users not to succumb to the temptation of going too far while hiding behind a computer screen.

“People will judge us based on what we’re saying and it fits into the larger context of bullying over social media. What you’re saying can be very hurtful to individuals and can drive people to take further action.”

Professionally it could also be harmful to your career, she cautioned. If you work for a specific company and spew hate on social media, then observers will often perceive you and the brand together.

“Anything that you say on social media reflects who you are as an individual,” said Corbo. “So while I really do believe in freedom of speech I think that just because you have the right and privilege, people also who are on the receiving end have the right and privilege to judge you based on that.”

Employers should emphasise that social media postings created a sense of character and leadership, she argued.

AAT has a Professional Code of Ethics that states that wrong behaviour online can result in disciplinary action or expulsion.

The code obliges members to “avoid any action that may bring disrepute to the profession.” This would include dishonest marketing or exaggerated claims about services, but also “disparaging references or unsubstantiated comparisons to the work of others.”

AAT Online Community Executive, Paul Coombes, said it was all a matter of common sense.

“For example, if you’re tweeting horrible stuff to celebrities or football managers but you also tweet about your AAT studies or you’re practising AAT and it’s in your profile, then people could spot that and make the link,” he said.

“If you’re a member of AAT or affiliated in any way, then whatever you do that’s in the public eye you need to consider our code of conduct.”

However, Coombes stressed that AAT was not only encouraged, but ran workshops, to help members learn to use social media professionally to their advantage.

“Especially if you are going it alone, and starting your own business, building up a strong network of other people in the same position or people who are already well-established, is really beneficial,” he said.

LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter all presented unique ways to build up your professional profile, said Coombes.

“A top tip would be to firstly figure out exactly who you are and what you’re doing and reflect that in any social media presence,” he said. “Make sure that it’s very clear to anyone who lands on those pages what your business is, what you offer, what differentiates you.”

Executive features on Facebook and Twitter allowed users to find the right target audience, and new features like the Facebook Live function, where you can upload a short video, helped to raise your profile, Coombes pointed out.

“The last thing is just monitoring the success of everything that you’re doing, If you do a few posts that go down very well then make sure you take stock of that and you do more, but if it’s not working well then adjust,” he said.

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Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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