We published our social media guidelines this week. It's been quite an revealing process. I haven't had to make much of a distinction between behaviour online and offline. We haven't had to set up a Digital/HR/Legal steering group to define a brand new code of online conduct; the existing contract for staff has covered it all pretty well.
The overriding principle in either case is simply "Don't be a Muppet"
Curiously most feedback has been focused on the importance of following them if you're using social media for work or in an official capacity. In fact it's probably a good idea to follow the main points if you use social media period. If you behave like an idiot online, you may not damage your employer's reputation but you'll almost certainly dent your own.
It's a point that a lot of people miss. When it comes to reputations there are really no divisions between your employer, your own professional life and your private one. If someone searches on your name, they're going to find whatever is online relating to you and you won't get to stand by their keyboard anxiously explaining "Ignore that, it's my personal page....oh no, I don't drink like any more....of course I left that political group a long time ago...". If they find it, they will read it. And by they I mean friends, neighbours, employers, prospective employers, spouses, prospective spouses, the press or - worst of all - your mother.
Let's all take a moment to think about that.
Don't kid yourself that because you don't mention where you work, no-one can guess. Inevitably you'll follow/tweet/make friends with colleagues who DO say where they work. And then you'll be associated with them by all those recommendation algorithms. You know, like the ones on Amazon that suggest you might want to buy Preparation H because you just looked at communion wafers.
Of course not every search result will relate to you. I'm quite lucky to share my name with a very eminent artist. Her results tend to outrank mine so all the sad fangirl posts I wrote on Sci-Fi boards back in the 90's are now safely languishing around page 20 of the search results. But not everyone is so fortunate. If you have an usual name or your job is quite high profile, you're pretty much screwed.
So what can you do about it?
Well the best option is to make sure that neither you nor your friends post anything online about you that you'll later regret. However if your friends are anything like mine I think we can safely assume that horse has long since bolted. My chums delight in taking candid photos of me asleep, half-awake or looking bored and posting them with the least flattering captions they can devise.
Plan B is to make sure that the good outweighs the bad. Doing a retrospective clean-up will always help but don't rely on it; Google cache is always there to fill in any newly created gaps. People are far less likely to be critical of a single mistake when it's drowning in far more positive search results about you. So get out there and do sensible stuff - get involved in useful conversations on Twitter, share interesting content in public on Facebook, post cool photos on Pinterest or Flickr or even make intelligent comments on blogs.
Not that I'm hinting or anything....