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Navigating the Social Media Minefield: Building a Positive Online Reputation

For some, social media must seem like a minefield of potential missteps. They have heard stories about people who accidentally destroyed their reputations by making an egregious mistake on sites like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Reddit. In light of the risks associated with online interactions, especially the potential for making a mistake all the world can see, is it better to avoid an online presence altogether?

No. In fact, you run a greater risk if you fail to take control over the content about you that is available online. Avoiding the Internet entirely makes it more likely that others can present their own view of you without your having much of a say in the matter.

You should be seeking to enhance your visibility on the Web. Access to important opportunities, like unsolicited job offers and status as an expert or industry leader, increasingly depends on online visibility reflecting a proven track record. Billions of people access information via the Internet, and representing yourself prominently there is crucial. Here are four tips for effective use of social media in building and maintaining a positive reputation.

  1. Find the relevant audiences for your professional objectives and aspirations, and use the most effective social media for communicating with them. Social media are platforms for communicating with various groups of people about the type of person you are. Whom you are trying to reach and influence determines the social media platforms on which you should be active. Depending on your target audiences, the use of multiple platforms may be most beneficial. Begin by asking yourself fundamental questions: What are my career/life goals? Which people control the resources I need to excel? What sorts of technologies are my target audiences most likely to use? Most executives are well aware of the utility of LinkedIn for managing professional networks, but are often less effective at communicating with people who are outside their immediate professional circles. Social media such as Twitter and YouTube may be more effective for engaging with such audiences directly. Being present on several platforms gives you the flexibility to tailor your messages to specific audiences according to your current goals.
  2. Help people understand what kind of person you are and what distinguishes you from others. As you communicate your identity on the Web, seek to affiliate yourself with a particular group (like a profession or industry) and distinguish yourself from other people in that group. Social psychologists refer to this as optimal distinctiveness. When using social media, you can enhance your optimal distinctiveness by highlighting your unique skills and being clear about what distinguishes you from others in the groups and communities to which you belong. For example, if you have a unique leadership style, people will be interested to hear more about it, and to learn from your experiences and successes. Talking openly about these experiences creates value for you while helping others.
  3. Let others in your social network do the talking for you. People see impression management as most genuine when others they already trust and respect do it on your behalf. When third parties say positive things about you, they help cement your reputation and create a halo around your activities. The best way to build your social network and to win friends and advocates is to reach out to others and support them. For example, retweeting or sharing what others in your professional network say is a good way to connect with those people. The more you say nice things about others and highlight their accomplishments, the more likely others are to do the same for you. Reciprocity tends to build trust and goodwill. Also, if you are ever in a jam and need someone to defend your reputation, trusted friends can be a helpful resource.
  4.  Engage critiques from legitimate sources directly and alleviate their concerns openly. As anyone who has spent any time online knows, people love to criticize others and sling a little mud. In many cases these attacks can be ignored, especially when they come from “trolls,” or individuals whose sole intent is to pester others, usually from behind a veil of anonymity. In some cases, however, criticism will come from legitimate sources and be a reputational threat. If a credible source of criticism has the potential to undermine a cornerstone of your reputation, then it is worth engaging directly. Instead of waiting for negative appraisals of your competence to disappear, counter such messages with material that backs up your position, strengthens your perspective’s legitimacy and supports your expertise. When engaging your critics, seek to understand their point of view and offer your own take on the situation. If they refuse to engage with you in return, draw on the reservoir of goodwill in your online network to combat those criticisms.

The more reputation capital you build by interacting with others using social media, the less you will need to concern yourself with reputational threats. The people who have been relatively invisible online are the most vulnerable to attacks or controversy simply because less evidence is available to counter negative claims people might make. When you have established a rich and diverse online presence, reputational threats can be more easily neutralized with the sheer weight of existing positive content.


Brayden King is an Associate Professor of Management and Organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Eszter Hargittai is an Associate Professor at Northwestern University’s Department of Communication Studies. They share an interest in the social and policy implications of information technologies and are writing a book for managers about building and protecting an online reputation.

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