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Hey Business Executives, Don't Forget Social Media is Always Watching You

09/23/2014 08:02 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 00:57 EDT

A faint echo of George Orwell's 1984 came to mind when a CEO was recently caught on camera behaving badly and our modern equivalent of the Thought Police -- the Internet -- demanded stiff and instant punishment.

As everyone with an Internet connection now knows, Desmond Hague, the chief executive officer of food services firm Centerplate, was forced to resign a few weeks ago after he was caught on an elevator security camera repeatedly kicking a dog. The video quickly went viral.

While Mr. Hague initially offered an apology and said he would donate $100,000 to charity, the court of public opinion wanted nothing short of his ouster. The company eventually bowed to public pressure, but the fallout continues as its bids for contracts may come under attack.

It seems the Internet, like Orwell's police state, is slowly forcing everyone to stay on his or her best behaviour. Now, one could argue that constant video surveillance is a good thing -- otherwise, the questionable behaviour of leaders would continue unchecked. In my mind, the Internet won when yet another elevator video surfaced of National Football League player Ray Rice punching his then fiancé, prompting his release by the Baltimore Ravens and an indefinite suspension by the NFL.

As a dog lover and feminist, I'm appalled by these videos and applaud their impact. But it's another reminder that we now live in an always-on society, where every mistake risks turning into a public relations scandal, and executives -- or even rank-and-file employees -- fall under the ever-watchful eye of surveillance and cyberspace. It is only sensible to be aware and adapt.

"Everyone in today's world is in the public eye, including CEOs. ... If we would see someone abusing a person or an animal, we would react to the event regardless of what the person's corporate title may be," said Ayelet Baron, a San Francisco-based expert on the future of work.

"Social media tools have not changed how people show up in the world. It simply has enabled greater transparency. So it's not a matter of whether it's fair. It's an issue of, if you have decided to be a public leader, your actions matter. And we live in this crazy celebrity world where if you chose to be in the spotlight, you have to be aware that people are watching what you do," she added.

However, even the best-trained executives have their bad moments and will occasionally screw up. So how do you cope?

David Wexler, an independent human resources consultant based in Toronto, is convinced that what separates those who survive such transgressions from those who do not comes down to the severity of the blunder and the degree of trust and goodwill that the CEO has built with various stakeholder groups.

Jeff Waldman, a Toronto-based strategist in social media and emerging HR technology, argues that the best strategy is for executives to be an active participant in social media in order to help mould their message. If they can't manage it themselves, then at the very least have a good understanding of its impact and a team of people who can monitor all social channels.

The good news, according to Mr. Waldman, is that the public's attention span is short and people eventually forgive as long as the offending executive accepts full responsibility without any excuses. A simple statement of apology is no longer enough but rather, the social media masses need to see "a combination of consistent and constant words and actions over time."

Then again, nothing works better than prevention. Mr. Waldman suggests that executives need to be exceptionally vigilant about how they behave and with whom they associate. "It's our new reality and it's 100 per cent a part of the new CEO job," he added.

Evelyn So, founder and CEO of Noesium Consulting, a Toronto-based digital consulting boutique, agrees, saying that in today's culture, it is no longer possible to separate the "employee" from the "person" and as a result, CEOs or any employees must maintain a socially acceptable standard of behaviour at all times.

"There is a fine line between your private and public persona," Ms. So said.

Ultimately, what this means is that, day or night, senior executives and perhaps eventually all employees will need to guard their actions, since anything they do will reflect on their employer's brand.

For the uninitiated, at the very least know that anything and everything you do in an elevator can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion. Big Brother, or in this case, social media, is watching you.

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