11/05/2012 07:10 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2013

You Are What You Tweet: How Social Media Define Our Professional Brands

Whether you're a Hollywood starlet offering "advice" on everything from presidential politics to preparing for a natural disaster, an elected representative "flirting" with constituents, or a person sharing your thoughts and ideas, whether you like it or not, people (and employers and voters) increasingly judge you by the tweets, posts and photos you choose to share on line.

The phenomenon is not new. Stories abound -- some real, some manufactured -- that point to some ill-timed or "thought the microphone was off but it was still on" mistake that ended (or made) a career. A few choice words can define you. Ronald Reagan credited his defiant "I am paying for this microphone" when the moderator of a debate for New Hampshire primary in 1980 instructed the sound controllers to turn it off with helping him win not only the debate, but the nomination (and the White House). Certainly the sound bite was memorable and helped define his persona as someone who would not be bullied or silenced. Thirty years later it has more than 141,000 views on YouTube. If it were to happen today it would be tweeted around the country and world -- although perhaps not in its entirety, as President Obama discovered when he told John Stewart that the attack on the U.S. embassy in which four Americans were killed was both "tragic" and "not optimal." The later became its own hashtag.

A few ill-considered words can also define you. During the worst oil spill disaster in history, one that cost 11 people their lives, BP CEO Tony Hayward infamously stated "I'd love my life back." His termination from that position quickly followed.

Each of these remarks is far shorter than the 140 character maximum on Twitter.

I cannot help but wonder what pictures, tweets and videos our future presidential candidates and business leaders are currently posting. And if they're even thinking about what those images and words will say about them. Are they relying on the discretion of their "friends," "fans" or "followers"?

Don't assume privacy
Years ago I shocked a senior leader of a company where I worked by informing him that the entire 'Best Practices Manual' that we had spent countless hours -- and dollars -- preparing for our operations and distributing through careful means was 'one Xerox machine away' from being in the hands of our competitors. Similarly people are surprised to discover that their privacy settings do not assure them that their carefully "controlled" social media presence is not being viewed by people that they have not intended. Today it is as simple as 'cut' and "paste" or "save picture as..." or even CTRL-ALT-PRTSCN for something you have posted to find its way into the mainstream of the Internet.

A while ago I was interviewed about sustainability and the reporter asked me some questions designed to determine if I was, in fact, living the values that I was espousing. I pointed out that, as an example, I had a rainwater catchment system installed at my home. I didn't mind the question, and encouraged him to check the Internet because I knew that I had sent pictures of the installation to the manufacturer. I was a bit uncomfortable when he informed me that he had seen the rain barrels by checking my home on Google Maps.

The Internet Is Forever
Sometimes we think better of something we have said or posted and we hit "delete." But gone is not gone on the Internet. Even when your original tweet is gone, for example, the retweets continue to live on, with your username attached. New York Congressman Anthony Weiner learned that the hard way, but others have failed to heed the lesson.

Pictures you posted of your last vacation may show up in places you never expected, as people search Google for images. Depending on where you work, that small bathing suit that is perfectly appropriate on the beaches of the Caribbean might not be the image you want your colleagues, co-workers or supervisor seeing.

That means, as much as you'd like to recall that message, or remove that posting, it may be too late. Even if your privacy settings are the most restricted available, are you sure that all of your Facebook friends have done the same? Even if your passwords are the most improbable and difficult to guess, are you certain that everyone with whom you correspond has been similarly judicious. The recent news of Sony Play Station accounts being compromised should give you further pause.

Be Prepared
Being aware of this is critical for anyone who wishes to be an effective manager of their personal brand and for people who specialize in corporate responsibility, CSR and sustainability, it is absolutely critical.

When I prepare presentations these days I will make sure that certain key points are suitable for tweeting; preparing my remarks so that certain key points that I wish to make are ready for social media -- both in content and in length.

Don't Panic
Of course, it is not time to throw away all of our devices and give up on social media. Rather, take advantage of the tremendous opportunity for personal branding that social media represent. All that is required in this new interconnected world is a certain level of understanding and the appropriate preparation.

Don't put things online that you wouldn't be comfortable seeing again one day. This may be a particularly hard lesson for people who have not entered the professional world, but hope to one day. They've grown up with technology as a trusted means of self-expression.

Evolving expectations
The Internet blurs the line between "public" and "private" personas it appears a healthy evolution that business may be adopting a "balanced" approach to using the information that potential recruits put out on social media.

Some companies are recognizing that sharing that picture of someone downing that shot of Jaeger or making that off color comment regarding traffic snarls does not put them in the best possible light, it should not de facto disqualify them from being the best choice for a job, a promotion or even to hold political office. At a time when some employers are now using online information to determine whom they want to hire. Some now are focusing on people based on their online presence and influence, seeking thought and opinion leaders (and to engage their networks).