Why social media is a blessing (and a curse)

Courtesy of Pam Wickham

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What is one piece of advice all millennials should take before entering the workforce? is written by Pam Wickham, vice president of corporate affairs and communications at Raytheon Company.

Build your own brand. Your degree tells me that you passed, and your references tell me someone is willing to vouch for you. But your brand tells me what I really want to know. It tells me who you are and what you stand for, and that gives me a pretty good idea of who you’re going to be.

Brand building itself isn’t new, but the way we do it is changing. We used to build our brands by promoting our finest moments and proudest accomplishments on a resume, then putting on our nicest suits and making the personal sales pitch known as the job interview. Resumes and interviews still matter, but where the personal brand really lives today – or more accurately, where it lives or dies – is on social media.

The first step in building your brand on social media is to stop calling it social media. You’ve grown up with that term, and with the concept that typing out your thoughts on a touchscreen and posting pictures of your life aren’t novel ways to communicate – they’re simply how communication happens.

The concept even made for an Academy-Award winning movie: The Social Network. These days, the movie is playing out a lot more like Broadcast News. It’s from the ’80s. Google it.

No matter what you think, no matter how strong your privacy settings are, everything you post and every interaction you have has the potential to reach the rest of the world faster than ever before.

It seems a little old-fashioned to warn you against posting questionable or offensive content, but the fact of the matter is that people keep doing it. I’m talking teenagers, college kids, people in their thirties, and even senior citizens. We’re more than a decade into the age of social media, and people – smart, savvy, otherwise capable people – keep doing it wrong. And when they do it wrong, they do serious damage to their job prospects.

I’ll give you two recent examples. This past month, you may have read about the high-school girl who bad-mouthed her new job at a pizza place the day before she started. She tweeted her way right out of that job and right into viral infamy. That won’t ever go away.

Then, there was this story last week. Ethan Czahor, former chief technology officer for Jeb Bush, resigned after deleting old tweets. Knowing he would be in the public eye, he started purging his Twitter feed – but not before Buzzfeed caught and screen-capped some pretty sexist jokes and other off-color tweets. The posts were several years old, but the damage was done.

Enough with the cautionary tales. Social media can ruin you, but it can also strengthen your brand. Post content that reflects your interests. Talk shop, but do it tactfully. Show me something interesting. Share your thoughts. Just as employers are screening your channels for red flags, they’re also looking for reasons to get you in the door. If you study engineering, post about science. Write about innovation. Show me you know your field and show me your excitement. Promote yourself.

We hear so much about people who realize only too late how powerful social media really is. But for those who already know, for those who seize that power, the potential is tremendous.

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