Just about every large organization, a whole lot of startups, are trying to leverage the potential of social media in their marketing efforts. We all read great articles containing tips and tricks regarding how to use social media for business purposes, and how to gauge whether or not we are successful.

The discussions often ignore the risks, especially the soft risks, of engaging the market and so-called citizen journalists at the Internet's watercoolers.

Soft risks are always part of the equation of the return on investment for a product or piece of software. Soft risks are usually nebulous, incalculable costs that are not necessarily directly related to the function of the solution we are purchasing. These are often things like the potential for the vendor to survive a tougher economy, the investment in learning a new skill or programming language required in order to leverage the new technology solution, and the unknowable costs of integrating with the rest of the infrastructure.

Like investing in a solution, investing in social media has risks, but unlike solutions that are purchased to do a specific thing social media's risks are almost all soft. They are immeasurable and, often times, not obvious.

A recent article, You Better Think Before You Twit, highlighted one of the potential soft risks of social media: the always uncomfortable foot in mouth. Interestingly, this article, while pointing out the potential negative aspects of being always connected to others at the Internet watercooler, kept the focus personal.

But the risks involved in engaging social media in such an informal way can adversely affect the company you represent, and it's important to recognize that risk - and give guidance - before your employees are out tweeting or powncing or plurking or uploading pictures of the company's Christmas party to Flickr.

ooops It's not just the potential slip of the tongue that reveals upcoming product plans or launches, or that gives away potentially sensitive corporate information. Most employees understand the potential harm to the organization such actions can cause and are careful to ensure they don't cross the lines they know exist.

But they aren't so careful about expressing themselves on other subjects because it is, as it were, like hanging around the watercooler. We're just doing it electronically instead of physically. This can be great for remote office and tele-workers for making them feel like a part of the organization, but when the conversation turns to topics of a more personal and sensitive nature, it can backfire on the organization.

When Google CEO Eric Schmidt decided to publicly endorse a political candidate, he may have meant to do so personally, but because he used his position at Google while doing so he made one of the first faux pas of social networking on the job: getting political. Discussions around the web indicated a mix of reactions, some good and some bad. Similarly, Apple's donation of $100,000 to the "No on Prop 8" campaign raised similar objections and support at Internet watercoolers around the country.

In both cases there were reactions that included "I am not buying/using their products anymore because of this." Right or wrong, the reactions were real. Both companies lost customers - or potential customers - over their decisions to dabble publicly in politics. Sure, that number might be minimal, but it might also be more far reaching than either considered. Conversely, their support might have gained them customers. That's why it's called a soft risk, because the effects can't be easily, if at all, quantified.

A long time ago we taught folks that politics and religion had no place in business; that discussing these taboo topics within the confines of the business world was a no-no and dangerous. It was a risk. The same is true for organizations who, unlike Google and Apple, certainly can't afford the negative hits on their reputation across the Internet based on any given employee's public discussions of things best left at home.

The line between professional and personal life is indeed blurring, especially for those who are considered corporate spokespersons, as their opinions on subjects that are outside the realm of technology can be taken as reflecting corporate culture and views on those subjects. It's easy to forget when you're hanging out on Twitter that you aren't just you, you're representing your organization. At the beginning of the hype cycle for the election, @prnewswire lamented a bit on this fact, but wisely decided that not commenting on such things was the only logical thing to do lest the person behind the avatar risk damage to the corporate entity it represents.

And no matter which side you take on divisive topics, someone is going to be angry with that opinion be-quiet and may choose to take their business elsewhere because of it. And you kids out there, remember, Google is forever (or at least it looks like it will be) and what you say on the ever-archiving web and how you say it will certainly be discovered in 5 or 10 years when your (next) potential employer searches you out to aid in their decision whether or not to hire you.

Before you get all bent out of shape about the potential restriction, remember that when you choose to make yourself a public figure of any kind to any size audience that you are giving up a lot of your privacy and personal flexibility. Becoming an Internet personality sounds great until you realize it can be (and I would argue in many cases should be) a soft muzzle on your personal opinions on touchy subjects.

The rule of thumb when you are engaging folks 'out there' is simple. We call it "social media" for a reason, after all. If you're commenting on blogs, or tweeting, or powncing, or just generally engaging in conversation electronically, it behooves you to remember the "media" in social media, and treat everyone like a potential member of the press rather than as "that cool guy/gal I met on Twitter". If you wouldn't talk to the press about political or religion or other potentially divisive topics, then you probably shouldn't be tweeting about them, either.

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