Strategies & Tactics

Real and Digital Lives Remain Inseparable

January 5, 2018

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By Alec Stone and Jonathan Jacobson

All of us have probably been guilty of believing the myth that our real and digital lives are separate. But a recent experience demonstrated how inextricably linked those two realms have become.

We sit on a nonprofit board and often engage in vigorous debate during meetings, which is a good thing. Once a decision is reached, however, the organization should be unified behind it. 

And with one ostensibly innocuous Facebook post that ridiculed a decision made during a meeting, an administrative staffer not only jeopardized the nonprofit’s reputation, but also disparaged the board’s credibility. The mistake was in believing that his digital activities don’t have bearing in real life, that somehow a person’s actual and digital lives operate independently. 

A computer screen gives the illusion of a protective barrier, allowing us to send out communications and then walk away thinking, “I have made my excellent point online; now, back to the real world.” But those two domains have become seamlessly integrated, with no wall between them.

Organizational leaders, staff, volunteers, members and friends need to recognize the myth that our real and digital lives are separate, and to avoid its pitfalls. When messaging on social media, we all have to recognize the potential repercussions. Online comments should be treated like in-person conversations. Before clicking “post” or “tweet,” ask yourself: Would I say this in person? Does this post add value to the discussion? Could it be misinterpreted or perceived as offensive?

Remember that your tone and facial expressions don’t translate well online — even with all caps and emojis.

Lasting marks left online

As boundaries blur between personal and business social media, employers constantly seek and review online profiles of employees and job candidates.

In his book “The Reputation Economy,” author and Reputation.com CEO Michael Fertik outlines a principle that we should consider before hitting “send”: Treat your reputation like a credit score. But since many jobs now require complete integration of business and personal time, millennials find it hard to compartmentalize their lives. Talking smack about your company, its policies, your boss or your co-workers is a sure way to end a job or career.

But there are appropriate ways to disagree. We don’t need to compromise our principles, just pick our battles. Carefully considering what we post online is about branding — our own and that of our organizations.

According to a survey by CareerBuilder.com, 33 percent of all colleges research applicants’ digital footprints. The Wall Street Journal reported that 500 of the top U.S. colleges look at students’ Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts. Kaplan, a company that helps students and professionals prepare for exams, found that 38 percent of all applicants suffered adverse consequences when colleges looked at their social media postings.

In a survey conducted by The Denver Post, 75 percent of U.S. adults who Googled their own names said the search results were not positive. According to Roy F. Baumeister and Brad J. Bushman, authors of the textbook “Social Psychology and Human Behavior,” 75 percent of companies have formal policies requiring their recruiters to research job candidates online when screening them for positions.

We should all consider how we present ourselves in the digital realm. That rushed email, sarcastic Facebook comment, snarky tweet or inappropriate Instagram picture could damage a reputation.

In the case of the staffer whose Facebook post mocked a decision reached in a meeting, the organization’s executive director spoke to the person — and, it is hoped, provided a life lesson. As PR professionals, we can all learn from that example.


Alec Stone is public affairs director for the Oncology Nursing Society, and a member of PRSA Health Academy’s Executive Board.

Jonathan Jacobson is vice president of integrated digital marketing and strategy at Larsen Products, USA.

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