Make no mistake: If you have a Facebook account, an Instagram page, a Twitter profile, you are a brand. Every time you upload a photo, add a link, or post an update, you're putting into the world another idea of yourself and what you stand for. These are innovations built to harness an innate quest for fame, marketing, and promotion, even among your own circle of friends. Here's the thing I tell my kids, who've grown up with digital technology: you will be Googled--not just by some guy in chemistry class with a crush on you, but by every prospective employer you will ever have, for the rest of your life. Keep that in mind the next time you post those photos from spring break in Cancun, or if you're considering getting that LIVE FREE OR DIE tattoo on your inner forearm. Anything directly associated with you, connected to you, endorsed by you, worn by you, or signed by you is going to tell people a lot about you.
Here's a handy list of rules to help you keep a handle on your personal brand:
1. Exercise strict control over Facebook and other social media content, making full use of any and all privacy settings. This is an ever-evolving issue, as more and more people sign up and upload more and more personal content onto their social media profiles. Rule of thumb: if your boss shouldn't see it, don't post it. Period. Because no matter how careful you are, other people aren't. It's social networking, after all. I'm not going to take you very seriously on Monday morning if you've posted photos of people doing tequila shots out of your belly button on Saturday night. Also, assume that you can never, ever hid, erase, or abolish anything posted on the web. Ever.
2. Dress the part. Your work clothes are a costume of sorts. They tell people what kind of a businessperson you are. I'm not going to go into specifics--I'm no fashion expert--but I like sharp clothes and sharp dressers. Here's a simple rule of thumb: shop like the Italians. They spend a lot of money on classic staples--suits, shoes, and coats. They're bold and stylish with everything else.
3. Use extreme caution when signing your name to op-ed articles, letters to the editor, book reviews, and commentaries. The thumbs-up you gave that anti-global warming book in 1997, the one you no longer agree with in 2012, will linger longer than the ozone layer. That passionate letter to the editor you wrote, criticizing a company you now want to work for--same thing. Google has a permanent memory. If you really must make your opinion heard, use a pseudonym.
4. Avoid tattoos in places that can't be camouflaged or covered. I like tattoos. I think some of them are cool. But unless you're opening your own tattoo parlor, or working in an office where you have to step over dogs and Ping-Pong tables and skateboards to get to your work space, I don't want to know you're a big fan of ancient Sanskrit symbols or Eddie Van Halen, or your mom.
5. Always check the recipient box before hitting Send. This is self-explanatory. Check and double-check, especially when responding to a particularly testy email. And don't write anything in your email you wouldn't say face to face. Your name is on the email--it can be forwarded, copied, printed, and left around for others to see.
This post is an excerpt from my book Cold Hard Truth: On Business, Money & Life.