When CNN reporter Anderson Cooper recently announced that he’s gay, making him the most famous out newsman in the country, it generated enormous media attention — and praise. In years past, it’s likely that the coming out of a prominent newscaster would have engendered protests instead of plaudits. But that was before the era of sharing party photos and other social media minutiae with our colleagues.
The boundaries are breaking down, privacy is a shimmering mirage, and we’re stuck in a world where you’re expected, and required, to be yourself.
But there’s a fine line between being authentic and TMI: you have to control the message. During my time as a presidential campaign spokesperson, we lived by the mantra that, when you’re announcing controversial news, you always have to control the terms of disclosure.
When Cooper finally decided to come out (after years of being dogged by rumors), he did it on his own terms: in an e-mail to blogger Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast, which he encouraged Sullivan to reprint for his readers. By coming out in a friendly venue (Sullivan is also gay), Cooper assured himself a receptive hearing. He also controlled the timing well: he’s currently abroad on assignment for 60 Minutes, making him unavailable for further comment. Thus, the media furor will have died down somewhat by the time he returns to the country later this week. Additionally, the Fourth of July holiday — during which many Americans go on vacation — is considered prime time to release negative or difficult news (when Sarah Palin resigned as governor of Alaska, she did it over the 4th).
For many professionals with tricky personal news to announce — you’re going to miss a deadline because of personal reasons, you’re going on maternity leave, you’re departing for a competitor — it’s important to pay attention, like Cooper did, to presenting your announcement under the best possible circumstances. You’ll want to identify an optimal time (after you’ve completed an important project, when your boss has some down time) and venue (you may want to tell your team members in person, such as at the close of a staff meeting). Depending on your organization, you may even want to enlist a friendly ally (your own version of Andrew Sullivan) to reach out to first, so that person can support you when your news goes public.
While it’s not always easy to share personal news at work, it can have an unexpected payoff. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Karen Sumberg reported last year in the Harvard Business Review, it actually pays for GLBT employees to come out of the closet. They’re more likely to be promoted because they spend less time worrying about secrecy and hiding and more time focused on their jobs. It’s likely that Cooper’s announcement will similarly liberate him from these concerns and enable him to have an even better career and more satisfying personal life.
Bringing your whole self to work is increasingly encouraged (think Zappos and their stated corporate policy of embracing weirdness). After all, in an increasingly diverse world, it can help you connect better with customers (Spanish speakers are likely to appreciate messages crafted from a Latino cultural perspective), develop new insights (a World of Warcraft-obsessed employee may have a relevant take on youth culture) and enhance employee morale and retention (a well-known Gallup study showed remarkable performance advantages from having a best friend at work — a situation far more likely to occur if you’re not putting on a façade).
Many people still argue there’s a fundamental right to privacy. But post-Zuckerberg, that illusion has evaporated — and, as I wrote in a previous HBR post, that’s a good thing: closing the gap between one’s public and private images results in more people being honest about themselves and their lives.
Whether you’re gay or not, it’s likely that you’ve faced complicated privacy issues: should you friend your co-workers on Facebook? How about your boss? How should you present — some would even say “curate” — your social media persona? As Cooper’s example reminds us, the best answer may be simply to open up and erase the division between public and private. You certainly don’t have to share everything, but it makes for a better world if you share the most important things.
Expectations — and mores — in the corporate world are changing fast. Maybe it’s time for all of us to come out of our respective closets, whatever they may be.
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on July 3, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.