I recently taught a workshop on crisis communication at a top business school. Afterward, a mid-career executive came up to me with a question. But it wasn’t about how to handle rogue employees, or industrial accidents, or philandering CEOs. Instead, it concerned a far more personal sense of crisis: her overwhelming fear of public criticism if she became active on social media. She was an accomplished professional; she’d run an environmental consultancy for the past six years. And she knew some kind of web presence was necessary for her credibility. “You have to have something up there for people to find you,” she said. “Having nothing would be bad.” But her web presence was spartan, a throwback to the “Web 1.0” days of static, brochure-like sites. Anything else, she feared, might risk opprobrium.
She isn’t the only executive I’ve met who shares this concern. Sure, some professionals hesitate to get on board social media because they’re worried about the time it takes, or running afoul of company policies, or simply because business is so robust, they don’t feel they need to. But a healthy subset are genuinely afraid that if they’re perceived as seeking attention, they’ll be quickly put back in their place. This fall, I coached the senior executive team at a large charitable foundation. One leader — a true expert in her field — raised a stream of polite objections to the idea of increasing her social media presence. Finally, I pressed her: “What exactly is your concern?” She wilted slightly and took a deep breath. “I’m not really comfortable putting myself out there,” she said.
It’s ironic, of course. We can all cite examples of social media bloviators we wish would shut up. And meanwhile, you have knowledgeable professionals who are too afraid to share their insights with the world. It’s true that the World Wide Web of the mid-90s was a Wild West; there’s a reason AOL thrived for years as a “walled garden” that protected people from idiots spewing ad hominem insults in chatrooms. But with the decline of anonymity on the Web (hat tip to Mark Zuckerberg, who famously declared that “Having two identities for yourself is an example of lack of integrity“) and the rise of using the Internet for professional purposes, it’s much less likely that anyone — especially someone writing intelligently about their profession, rather than a hot button political issue — will get “flamed” these days.
The other fallacy, quickly revealed to those who do start blogging or tweeting, is that hordes of people will be anxiously following what you write. In fact, the early days of social media use can be quite lonely. Is anyone paying attention? Why am I spending so much energy on this? Is this a complete waste of time? I (jokingly) try to convince these executives that it would actually be a good problem to have if they started getting hate mail because it would mean they were hitting a chord with the public. Of course, that’s no comfort to a shy person who abhors conflict or confrontation.
But the truth is, a far more likely scenario is that for the first few weeks or months you’re active online, you probably won’t get any comments, much less negative ones. And that’s actually good, as I wrote about in my recent HBR post “Build Your Reputation the Rachael Ray Way.” A necessary step in developing a powerful reputation is spending time “toiling in the wilderness” and perfecting your craft and ideas while few people are paying attention. That fact turns out to reassure many of the apprehensive executives I work with, who realize that creating “public” content doesn’t mean it will immediately be dissected and critiqued by the entire world.
Finally, since the spotlight feels so uncomfortable to these leaders, I advise them to kickstart their social media presence by shining the light on others. Presenting themselves as experts (even though they are) often strikes them as presumptuous or pretentious. But writing “how to” or “here’s what you should do” blog posts isn’t the only option. Instead, you can interview other thinkers you admire, or write about good work in your industry. I encouraged the foundation executive to retweet positive stories from the nonprofits she funds, and the environmental consultant to create a podcast featuring conversations with talented colleagues. The act of curation — not just creation — also positions you as someone credible, and has the added benefit of tightening your connections with other leaders in your field.
It’s hard enough for diffident professionals to “put themselves out there” in the regular context of work. Social media makes it even worse — a risky, high-speed word-of-mouth machine they feel they can’t control. But it’s also, as my student admitted, increasingly essential. Having nothing, or only some paltry wisps, representing you online now marks you as out of touch (she’s not even on LinkedIn?), inconsequential (what, she never did anything important enough to be written about?), or even suspicious (why isn’t there any evidence she ever worked there?). It can be hard to adjust to the new workplace reality, where everyone is expected to use an online megaphone. But if you think of it as an opportunity to raise the discourse, focus on meaningful ideas, and draw attention to worthy people and causes, even the most wary might learn to love social media.
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website on December 26, 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, 2013). 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.