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Professional Relationships and Social Media


Relatively speaking, relationships used to be simple. Or at least simpler. Maybe just not as complicated.

Once upon a time your professional relationships stayed in one place, your personal relationships in another, and you controlled where those blurred through. That control is no longer in your hands. Your friends, family, co-workers and clients are all free to mingle and there’s nothing you can do about it. And while you may have lost control over who gets to talk to who, you can still control your own behavior, so let’s focus on that.

While the barriers for where different types of relationships gather may have fallen by the wayside, the fundamental rules for how to interact within those types of relationships have not. Friends are still friends. Clients are still clients. People you do not know are still not your friends. But most importantly… clients are not your friends. They are your clients.

Relationships with clients fall under the classification of professional relationships. Furthermore they fall within the service arena. Wherein you are the one providing the professional service. The same rules of conduct that apply to speaking to a client in person, or on the phone, apply in social networks. If you wouldn’t make a joke about a client’s mom from across a conference table, then don’t make it on Twitter. The same applies for them as well.

You are in a public space.

Many social networks have toyed around with the idea of “semi-public” clusters, such as Google+’s circles, that give the illusion that you can categorize and rope off different types of relationships into different corrals. Don’t fall for this. As anyone with a Facebook account knows, the rules about levels of privacy are fluid. If it’s on the Internet, it’s on the Internet. That which can be copied WILL be pasted. So don’t kid yourself that you’re in a private space. The Internet is, by definition, a public space. And gloriously so. If the Internet is a series of tubes, then social media is the lubricant that makes sure the rudest thing you’ve ever said can travel through those tubes and quickly get to the person you’d least want to read it.

If you don’t want it read then don’t put it on the Internet. This includes e-mail, chat, and Twitter DM. (As an overall rule of thumb for life, if you don’t want people to associate a comment with you, keep it from coming out of your mouth.)

Act intentionally.

Much like the opening of the American frontier gave rise to lawlessness, which gave rise to guns, which gave rise to wounds, which gave rise to the snake oil salesmen; the rise of social media has given rise to social media experts extolling the virtues of their 10-in-1 Social Media Strategies™.

Let me save you the joy of sitting through a 45 minute webinar: Act intentionally.

Set a goal and achieve it, then set another goal. Whether your goal is to use social media to meet other designers, find work, link to your blog posts, your portfolio, see how the other half live, or just be a dick, be aware of how your behavior is affecting that goal. Know how your words are coming across, and imagine how others might perceive them. You can practice this by tweeting in front of a mirror in your bedroom.

When in doubt ask for feedback from people you respect. Tone is tricky and a lot of times people can’t judge their own.

I’m certainly not the right person to tell you not to be a dick on Twitter if that’s your goal. Just don’t be an accidental dick. Be the best dick you can be and don’t be surprised when others start calling you out. This strategy also applies if you’re a nice person. I just don’t feel qualified to talk about that. Either way. Be aware of how you come across.

Just as you read good writers to become a better writer, and view others’ code to become a better designer, study good Tweeters to see what makes them good. (They’re also writers, by the way.) It’s all part of communication design.

Some people also use Facebook. Whatever.

Manage your identity.

No one expects you to behave the exact same way after work than at work. (And if you do, you probably need to take it up a notch at work.) Clients expect you to be more relaxed at the bar after an all day workshop than you are leading or participating in it. In a way, social networks are an after-work venue. There’s a relaxed level of behavior, but it still needs to fall within the bounds of what’s appropriate.

Have a consistent voice that can vary from venue to venue, but realize that your reputation travels across those venues with you.

Can you tell dirty jokes on twitter? Sure. They might even help rapport and build trust, but the next morning when a client is sitting across the table from you, you’re always gonna be the person who told the joke and should they mention it you better be able to roll with it. And most importantly, when you present your work to that client it better be good enough to make them forget that joke. Because if they leave that meeting and they’re still thinking of you as the guy who told the dick joke you’ve failed as the guy who presented that design.

Never, ever, talk about clients on Twitter.

I’ve never done it. Not once. Go check.

First off, never follow a client first. Let them come to you. If they survey the landscape and decide this is an after-hours environment they’d like to wander into, then fine, they’ve made an informed adult decision. For my part, my bio explicitly states that my account is not work-related:

“This is a personal account and does not reflect the opinions of my boss, who is an asshole.”

Feel free to talk to clients who decide to follow you, but stay away from project talk. I may talk about how wonderful it was to work with someone after the fact, or congratulate them on launching or reaching a milestone. (I’ve had the pleasure of congratulating a client on winning a Pulitzer. Twice!) But don’t express negative thoughts about a project or a client, or their company or anyone on the client team.

Don’t tweet about meetings gone badly, or not looking forward to a client event, or needing a drink after a client interaction. Not only is it incredibly unprofessional, stupid, and rude, it’s bad business. No client who comes across a vendor bad-mouthing them will work with that vendor again.

Don’t come up with a “secret private account” to do it from either. The misplaced bravado from believing you’re in a “safe place” will only spur you to be even more careless. And the point here isn’t to not get caught tweeting about clients, it’s that it’s wrong. Also, announcing on your public account that you have an invitation-only private account for talking smack is not the smart move you thought it was.

I’d also avoid general complaints and dirty laundry about the workplace. Not only are current clients listening, but so are potential future clients, employees and partners. Manage your issues with your doors closed and your dignity intact.

Your client relationships are confidential.

Whether you signed an NDA or not, your client relationships are confidential. This carries over to social networks as well. The sanctity of the client relationship overrides your right to overshare every minute of your life.

Social media is a wonderful thing. It enables us to get to know each other better, to get to know people we’d otherwise never meet, and to stay virtually close while physically separate. We get to cheer on a sick friend, and congratulate the newly wed. We can share jokes, our sense of outrage, and stories. But as designers, we are also professional communicators. And we need to figure out how to behave socially while also behaving professionally.

Because no one wants to read a tweet from his doctor that says, “Just saw a guy with the smallest testicles EVAR. #raisins”


Would you care to elevate the discussion?

8 thoughts on “Professional Relationships and Social Media

  1. Alan says:

    Stellar. Every bit. Thanks.

  2. Sam Adams the Dog says:

    Hey, never talk about your boss on twitter, either. ;-)

  3. Kathy says:

    Great suggestions for those whose boundary between personal and professional needs some bolstering. But folks in my professional circle lean too far (in my opinion) the other way – they view social media as so much of a hash of personal and professional that they won’t use it professionally at all. I would love to see you write another post on suggestions for use of social media by those who are hyper-sensitive to maintaining the personal-professional boundary.


  4. Mike Monteiro says:

    That’s an excellent suggestion, Kathy.

  5. @Sam Adams the Dog

    Mike is his own boss, he is one of the two founders off Mule Design. In case you were referring to his twitter bio.

    And in case you where ironic I accept the shame. :)

  6. Sarah says:

    This is pure magic: “Because no one wants to read a tweet from his doctor that says, ‘Just saw a guy with the smallest testicles EVAR. #raisins’”

    Not only out of respect for the client, but also as a business person you want to show people that you only deal with awesome clients, which is a natural extension of the fact that you yourself are awesome. Be the flower that attracts the bees. If you’re not awesome, you’re gonna land on shitty clients left and right.

    In my experience, I realize that a bad boss, a bad client is MY doing; the root of the problem is ME. Projecting the frustration in a public forum is only announcing, “Hey, look at the shitty choice that I made! Look at the shitty fix that I’m in due to my shitty lack of intuition, my lack of AWESOME.” You reap what you sow.

    And to conclude, long ago, I met a guy years before Twitter #babycarrot

  7. Awesome suggestion thanks for the post!

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