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When are you operating in public?

I had several people talk to me about my recent post, “Do you know how to operate in public?” State Farm was embarrassed when a private letter was publicized in social media and mainstream media, all because a diligent employee followed accepted procedure in a situation that might have demanded an exception. Most of my questioners lamented that private conversation is no longer private, but we can’t just pine away for the good old days. We need to live in the here and now. And times have changed. One person asked me how he could know when he is operating in public if private communication is no longer safely private, which is a good question. Every employee now has to think like your company spokesperson.

One answer to the question is, “Everything you do is now in public.” I sometimes tell people this, and it is a great sound bite, but it is an oversimplification. If you send an e-mail to your boss about a problem you’re having in the shipping department, he probably won’t update his Facebook status with the information. So, while it is possible that everything you do could be publicized, I think it is more nuanced than that.
The more I think about it, the more I think it has to do with the relationship between you and the person you are speaking with, and with their motivation for making something public.
If it is someone you know and trust, you can probably continue to count on the right things remaining private. That’s why you trust them. The real question comes up when you don’t know someone, as in State Farm’s case.
When you don’t know someone, you have to ask yourself if they have any motivation for making this public. In the State Farm case, they most certainly did, because keeping the letter private left all the power in the insurance company’s hands. They had the legal right to collect and the ability to enforce that right. Making the letter public could change that power dynamic by bringing the weight of public opinion. That seems like a great motivator to make something private public.
That’s what we need to ask ourselves every time we do something seemingly in private. Of the others who see it, what is their motivation to make it public? Might they want to change the power dynamic? Or get some attention for themselves? Or embarrass the powerful? Or make a political point? By thinking through the motives involved, you can better answer the question, “How should I handle this?”
If you don’t know the person and you can imagine a motive to betray a confidence, then you are probably better off acting as though each of these private moments is really a public one. If you don’t want others to know about it, don’t do it.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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