Social Media Faux Pas – Blurring the Boundaries

I wouldn’t say I was an early adopter of social media platforms like Facebook. After about a year of hearing friends yammer on about how great it was to be able to find people they had lost contact with long ago, I finally caved. From that point on, I was pretty much addicted to the site, which gave me great insight into very important matters such as what type of toilet paper my friends were considering buying, and how awesome the previous night’s bar-hop was.

As my use of the site deepened and I eventually amassed nearly 600 close and personal friends, I began to tire of so much needless information, eventually deciding to deactivate my account.

It wasn’t until about a year later, when one of my close journalist friends convinced me to return, that I actually decided to try it again. This time, however, there was one caveat: I would start the new account with the sole purpose of interfacing with many of my key and target journalists. I figured that this ‘place for friends’ would also be a great place to connect with journalists about client news and PR-related matters.

So, being an old pro at Facebook, I decided to approach my ‘wish-list’ journalists. Guys like The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and CNN, were on Facebook and accessible, so I was able to quickly add about 65 really great ‘friends’ on my new page.

Throughout the whole add process, I never encountered so much as a push back from any of my requests. That was the case until I came across a contact whom I was very interested in establishing a relationship with in one particular publication. Though I’d heard from colleagues that this person could be a difficult contact, I figured that very little harm could come from sending her a quick note to introduce myself, my client, and ask to be added to her friends list.

…Thus began what I will likely remember as the most embarrassing couple of hours in my PR career.

After sending the request, I went back to my work and thought little about it until about five minutes later, when my colleague mentioned that said journalist was Tweet-slamming me to her more than 2300 followers as a “weirdo” and various other not-so-wholesome names. This prompted me to go back to my Facebook messages to find out if she had said anything directly to me.

The first reply back from her was simply “No Thanks.” The second and third responses, to my horror, launched into a pretty harsh lecture about me having the gall to request an add, since I was not one of her close personal friends. She went on to explain in great detail that she was not going to add some creepy “randomer” who would then be able to see pictures of her in a bikini. After that she lectured me on how I had no right to ask to be part of her “personal sphere,” and that if I wanted to add her, I should have requested it via LinkedIn, because she might have added me.

Concurrently, on Twitter, she was still piping snark to her followers, who were joining in on the conversation about how creepy it was that this “randomer” PR guy would ever try to friend her.

Even though I was absolutely humiliated, and very angry at this person for the unprofessional series of responses, I decided that the best thing I could do to expedite a resolution would be to send her a quick apology via Facebook and try to re-explain my motivation behind the request. Fortunately, though she continued to be very snarky and condescending, the flaming on Twitter tapered off, and I started to breathe a little easier.

After about an hour, I began to reflect on what she told me, and realized that while her reaction may have been extreme, she did, indeed, have a valid point. That point was that rather than assuming everybody that I have done, or wanted to do business with, would be open to ‘friending’ on Facebook, I should probably be a bit more sensitive to the fact that there are still people who consider that particular site closed to professional interests, and use it almost exclusively for actual friends and family.

Even though the Web can be a great resource for information and networking, there are still boundaries to be observed. To complicate matters, the increased use of social media for business purposes has made those boundaries a little blurry. I found out the hard way that it is definitely NOT okay to assume that just because I may have dealt with someone in one aspect of their life, that it is acceptable to invade other more private aspects of their lives. Now, if I am interested in connecting with someone on Facebook, I am ALWAYS sure to send them a direct message to ask if they use their page for business, or just personal.

Have you ever committed a social media faux pas? Share your story in the comments, if you dare. I promise, the confession is liberating.

Scott Smith can be reached at ssmith@sterlingpr.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealAskScott.