Even if someone carefully manicures their online presence and pedigree, it only takes a single tweet, comment, or picture from someone closest to you to undo everything in a day. One button click on Facebook can undo a decade of being an ideal "power couple" when someone changes their status from 'married' to 'its complicated'.
These seemingly harmless, sometimes quirky online episodes under the existing rules of social networks can set off a flurry of phone calls among family members, make connected employers think twice about whose head is clear enough to lead that big project, or even scare away the usual friendly suspects who normally subscribe to everything you share. It doesn't even have to be so overt, either.
Anything can happen, really. A couple of years ago, I was working with a candidate who took a pretty tough stand on illegal immigration. One of his followers, who the candidate hadn't spoken to in years, took exception to what he had to say, enough so that she started rallying against him on Facebook thread.
The entire episode exploded into a half-day session of angst as his followers split into decidedly different camps on the issue. But the real kicker was when her barely coherent argument was punctuated by the fact that she was his cousin, talking about illegal immigrants who were in his extended family. Yikes. He didn't even know it (and it didn't change his position). But there were consequences.
Does 'personal branding' mean we need 'couples branding' and 'family branding' too?
This is one of many reasons that personal branding doesn't work. And it is the main reason that I am always perplexed when social media professionals argue that personal branding ought to be an ever-constent concern. Yes, the same people who advise organizations can't control their brands are sometimes the same people advising individuals that they ought to control their online brands. Are they kidding?
If you think it's difficult to manage a message within an organization that can set some semblance of guidelines, then you might as well lower your expectations for personal branding where no such guidelines exist. Well, except for those folks who ask their better halves (and friends) to seek approval.
Can you imagine doing the same with all your friends and family members?
Years ago, I wrote a little post about Tom Cruise to illustrate the pitfalls of personal branding and the paradox of expected behavior, whether or not someone pursues personal branding as a means to an end. The point I was trying to make then — the fragile brand theory — is the further away someone drifts from the reality of who they are, the more damaging any deviation from that brand becomes.
It also explained why some public figures are expected to be saints with no room for error and others are expected to be sinners with reckless abandon. But what I didn't write about then was that the entire image is dependent upon those who claim to know you best. And that means any personal branding deck is stacked with wild cards that undo anything that isn't authentically you or, worse, the contradiction of anything you've said or done, whether it is true or not.
Brands are fragile. Character is not. And even that is going to take hits.
Recently, I reviewed this brilliant little thriller called Defending Jacob that underscores the point. The story, about an assistant district attorney whose son is accused of murder, illustrates just how fragile a brand can be. At the onset, the character is one of the most respected people within his community.
But when his son is accused, all those years of reputation building come undone. To make matters worse, his wife becomes fixated on the fact that the protagonist comes from a long line of violent men, the most immediate of which is incarcerated for murder. Never mind that he hadn't seen his father since age 5 or that he didn't share this dubious fact because of the baggage (and labels) that come with it; his wife still obsesses over whether or not she had a right to know before they were married.
Sure, the book is fiction. But the concept is not. People make judgments about all sorts of unrelated things, ranging from who you associate with to your extended family. Brands can't be controlled.
Five years ago, when online personal branding became the topic du jour, it all seemed easier. But that was only because there were fewer people actively engaged in social media. Nowadays, even those obscure family members (like the second cousin who always seemed like he came from another planet) and those long lost friends (like the one you ditched school with and told all sorts of secrets), can snap any brand you've built since then in a second. But those folks are only the tip of the iceberg. The person sitting next to you is just as likely, even if they have no intention to do you any harm.
You can't control any of it. So you might as well be comfortable with it. It's just part of life. Live it.