Building a Social Media Presence that Will Boost Your Career
Hint: It’s Not “Better Safe Than Sorry”
It seems like everyone has a different opinion about how professionals should conduct themselves online. While some think it’s a huge added bonus to have big, dynamic personalities working with their organizations and helping expand their message to new audiences, it can also scare a lot of employers to hire someone with more followers (and possibly even more influence) than their main brand accounts.
So much gray area can be scary to someone just beginning their career. While you’re navigating your new role (or trying to land one) and trying not to make any missteps, you might think it’s best to just batten down the hatches—but read on before you decide to lock your Instagram account.
There are only a few hard and fast rules about how you present yourself online — so a lot of the following guidance is going to be up to your personal interpretation and are decisions you have to make for yourself based on your career goals, personality, and preferences.
Build a Strong Foundation & Pay Your Dues
If you have high aspirations, you might look at posts from personalities like Reps. Dan Crenshaw and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and think you need to be bombastic or throw snarky barbs at people in order to build a supportive audience and establish yourself — but you should actually think of that as an option for you in the future, not the present. You have to build a strong foundation before you can test its strength — and that takes time.
Some argue that the “dunking culture” that has become so prevalent in online interaction has poisoned our dialogue — and you could use your social platforms to help change that. If you make a point to consistently show that you’re thoughtful and respectful, you should rarely have to worry about being perceived as unprofessional.
Non-negotiable rule: Use your real name and a picture that is clearly you. This will not only hold you accountable any time your thumb is hovering over a post button, it signals transparency and authenticity. If you’re launching new accounts, start off by following your friends IRL and accounts you enjoy and want to emulate (more on that below) and engage with other users’ content as much or more than you create your own — that means replying to tweets (not just liking them), asking questions, and commenting on their stories. Don’t fixate on how many people are following you — just create good content and over time it will grow.
Quality Over Quantity
Resist the temptation to build a massive following for no reason other than to have one.
Sometimes in the conservative space we look at the numbers from our social reports and think “this video got no views — we should stop making videos like that” or “this video got millions of views — let’s make more of these,” but those numbers are not the whole story.
If all we cared about was getting views and followers as a measure of success, we’d be making videos of corgi puppies playing with kittens in a bounce house with Ryan Gosling. Our GOAL is to spread a message about our policies — and yes, we should do that effectively and test out different ways of telling stories and sharing ideas, but you should always do that without sacrificing your principles and purpose.
So what does that have to do with your personal brand? Well, a lot of young people can build massive followings just because… they’re young and attractive. So yes, you can generate Instagram Fitness Model content to grow a big following much, much faster than you would by sharing your thoughts on free-market economics eliminating poverty in the third world… but is it the following you want? One that inspires people to value you and your ideas or just… your clever use of peach emojis?
Nope. It’s not a strong following — it’s not actually valuable, and oh… it’s a big red flag for employers and your colleagues.
You have to learn the rules before you can break them
If you’re working in DC (especially on the Hill) you might think you can’t have a personality or a presence at all — that it’s better to be safe than sorry — but that’s actually counterintuitive.
Your social presence is an opportunity to demonstrate what kind of person you are — and can even signal to your colleagues and employer how trustworthy you are.
As we mentioned last month, you’re going to make some mistakes in your early career (and throughout your career tbh), and while some fear can be healthy (example: It can stop you from sending a sarcastic tweet after happy hour), it can also hold you back from opportunities.
A lot of professional networking is now done online, and that means a well-established, thoughtful presence online can serve you very well for years to come.
So where can you start? Google yourself.
It’s called a vanity search (while you’re at it you should definitely set up Google alerts for your name) and it’s pretty important to know what’s being published about you online.
If you have a common name like Mary Smith, you might want to start using a middle name to stand out (or pull an S.E. Cupp and use your initials if you wanna be bold—just don’t expect your mom to ever call you that). If you’re in the earliest stage of your career this can be the perfect time to make a change and stick to it. Bonus: It can also open you up to social handle options that haven’t been taken up by all the other Mary Smiths of the world.
If you have a less-than-common name you might decide you need to be more proactive controlling your SEO. If you’re trying to build a reputation, a great way to start is launching a blog (Medium is great) and posting regular content.
Review all your public content across social platforms and delete delete delete
Deleting all your tweets is controversial — in the age of rage mobs, it’s a tempting option that many people choose, but it’s up to you. I think of my decade of tweets like a public archive — I’m on the record taking a public stand on issues that matter to me and I’m not ashamed of that, but a lot of that content is reliant on context — your live tweets from the presidential debates in 2012 made sense at the time, but they definitely won’t anymore: Delete them.
It’s not just what you’ve written that matters — review who you’ve retweeted, who you’re following, and how often you’re posting.
Unfollow accounts you wouldn’t want to be associated with (even if you’re a journalist, add those accounts to a private list — you don’t need to follow them) and unretweet content you wouldn’t tweet from your own account.
Scan and delete inappropriate pictures — and don’t forget to read your old captions. This goes back to personal preference: Most people are fine holding a glass of champagne in a photo at a friend’s wedding, but what’s the context? If you’re, say, Mary Smith who got arrested for underaged drinking in high school, you might want to avoid signs of alcohol in pictures.
Ask a friend to audit you
After steps 1 & 2, ask a trusted friend to audit you, too. This should be someone who is established in their career and whose online presence you want to emulate — we don’t want the blind leading the blind here.
Bonus: Audit them and have a conversation about what you liked about their style or what you would do differently.
This is when you ask more philosophical questions: What type of tone do I have? Am I someone you would take seriously on policy? Am I an over-sharer, too sarcastic, or too rigid/safe/boring? Do I post too frequently or not enough? Am I too negative/whiny (frequently posting updates like “the metro is down again and I had to walk 3 miles to work!”) or do I come off as too perfect/fake?
Note how many times the word too appears in the above paragraph — all of the previous descriptions are extremes — you should avoid being on either side of them and decide for yourself what a healthy balance looks like.
After giving yourself an audit and considering how your presence impacts your career goals, create a personal social strategy. Set limits for how much time you spend engaging on social media, write down things you’ll never do (I’ll never curse, I’ll never attack someone personally because they disagree with me on policy, I won’t engage with anyone who is anonymous, etc.).
You’re going to make mistakes and you’re probably going to break your own rules — but if you can admit when you’re wrong or even when you’ve changed your mind about a policy or idea you once had, you’ll build a strong presence online that will grow with you throughout your career.
And if after reading all this you still don’t know what you should or shouldn’t post online, just use this handy rule of thumb: Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see.