Are you in the business of getting more business? Whether you work solely online or promote your work through social media and blogging, you’ve probably read plenty of advice about building your personal brand.
From salon stylists taking to Instagram to share their latest pastel ombré creations to public relations professionals looking to up their client roster, building a personal brand opens up professional opportunities in almost any industry.
Working to constantly create new posts or pictures that will grow your audience also takes a ton of time and effort. And, of course, an entire sub-industry of social media experts and coaches has sprung up to lend a helping hand.
In between instructions on how often you should post to Facebook versus Twitter, there’s one thing that’s consistently left out of instructions on how to make, and maintain, a name for yourself online: How to protect the boundary between self-promotion and personal security.
Why should bloggers and personal brand-builders bother with online safety?
Because social media stalking is a real thing with real-life consequences. Examples include this author who decided to track down a blogger who wrote a negative review. Or, ProBlogger Darren Rowse, who experienced a string of threats and cyber bullying that escalated to a physical attack made upon his property.
Whether you’re just starting to build a branded online presence or already boast a bevy of followers, there are important steps to take control of your privacy now—so that you don’t lose control of it later, starting with:
Step 1: Perform a Privacy Checkup
Searching for how much of your personal information is already available online can be intimidating. But knowing is better (and safer) than keeping your head in the sand.
To perform a thorough personal privacy checkup, search Google for the following:
- Your full name in quotation marks, e.g., “Jane Doe,” and don’t forget to check the Images and Video tabs
- Your phone number
- Your home address
- Your social security number
Next, perform a Google Reverse Image search of your most recently shared photos by right-clicking your image, then selecting “Search Google for image.” Do this for your profile pictures on social websites such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn, as well as any images that are your personal intellectual property.
Related: Find Out What Google Knows About You
Finally, search your own name on the following people-finding platforms:
Should your search yield any surprises, don’t panic! We’ll share steps to help you correct any instances of over-sharing soon.
Step 2: Nail Down Your Boundaries
Some people might hold the view that by having social media accounts at all, sharing photos, or establishing a public presence on the internet, you’re just asking for trouble—and that any information shared online is too much.
Forgive the generalization, but those same folks probably don’t understand the benefits that building an online presence can have for your personal business. After all, who hasn’t enjoyed reading about a milestone in the life of their favorite blogger or shared congratulations when a professional contact is promoted?
Building a personal brand is all about sharing bits of yourself that allow others to relate to you. However, refining what you want to keep private and what you’re okay sharing is a personal decision.
While one person might be comfortable sharing pictures of their new home while others use a pseudonym to write, there are a few items of information that should always be kept on lockdown. Those include your:
- Phone number
- Personal email
- Home address
- Personal social media accounts
- Home city
- Restaurants or establishments you frequent
- Names of family members or close friends
While those might seem obvious, consider that important details can be easily inferred from innocent bits of information. For example, if you tell your audience that you live near a certain landmark, post pictures of the morning view from your balcony, or even share a cute snapshot of your pet, someone with less-than-honest intentions can add up those little snippets to paint a surprisingly accurate picture of the general area of your home.
Step 3: Start Protecting Your Privacy Now
Social media websites are a privacy minefield unless you know how to protect yourself, and not just from other users, but also from the companies providing the platform itself.
On top of all this, many online services and mobile apps take more of your private information than they need—and they do a really bad job of keeping it safe.
Here are a few worthwhile steps to reduce the risk that someone impedes upon your privacy and safety:
Use a separate email for managing your social media and blogging accounts. Did you know that it’s possible to search for someone using their email address? Consider creating a burner email. It allows you to filter unwanted contacts and provides a line of defense. Additionally, you can set it up so that new emails are forwarded to any address you’d like, so nothing important is missed.
Create alternate social media accounts, then view yourself to get an idea of what’s being shared with strangers. This includes Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google Plus—view what you’re sharing on each to make sure there aren’t any pictures or personal bits of information on display, then adjust the settings on your main profiles accordingly.
Get a post office box for any work-related correspondence. Especially if you work from home, being asked for a mailing address can present a dilemma. PO boxes are a quick and cheap fix that allow you to receive paper checks, brochures, samples, or anything else you might want mailed without feeling insecure that your home address will fall into the wrong hands.
Protect your passwords. Never sign into any of your accounts on another person’s device. Activate the password lock on your computer, laptop, tablet, and phone to ensure that anyone with physical access can’t sneak on. Further, be sure to use a different, complex password for every website or app. If you’re worried about forgetting them, check out password managers such as 1Password, KeePass, or LastPass.
Opt out of people finder websites. Remember when you searched for yourself on those websites listed in Step 1? Take the time to opt out of each. For example, you can opt out of Spokeo here.
Create a Google Voice number. Chances are you’ll be asked for a contact number even more than your address, and Google Voice provides the perfect privacy-friendly solution. You can forward calls to this number to your regular phone while maintaining anonymity. Bonus? It saves you from those inane sites or apps which require a phone number, or which use your phone number for innumerable data mining reasons.
Create multiple user names. And, make sure that none of those social media handles match your personal email address, no matter how much you love the combination of words and numbers.
Tape over your webcam. It might sound like an urban legend, but there's enough evidence from real victims of webcam hacking to make you shudder. Even creepier, hackers can now gain access without illuminating the LED light that indicates your camera is being used. You can read more about webcam hacking through the links above—just be sure to grab a piece of tape first.
Install anti-tracking plugins and extensions on your browser. I use Chrome and prefer AdBlock Plus. However, there are plenty of options available.
Set up a Google Custom Alert. The extra-vigilant can sign up to receive email notifications whenever their name is mentioned online. This tool is often used by those wanting to stay on top of news in a particular industry, but can easily be adapted to help you track any privacy risks.
Step 4: Delete Your Dead Social Media Accounts
Is your Myspace profile still hanging around? If so, the chances are that younger-you wasn’t so careful, and those long-dead accounts display information you’d rather keep private. Just don’t think deleting those accounts is always a simple process! Social media websites make money off of their users and are known to put up a fight when you try to say goodbye.
If you’re finding it difficult to delete a profile, check out site-specific steps here: Know How to Quit Social Media (and When You Should)
Additionally, know what your rights are on any new social media service or app before you sign up. Does it force you to enable location finding or limit your ability to block users? If so, consider choosing another platform to guarantee your privacy.
The Answer Isn’t to Stop Sharing, But to Share Smarter
The beauty of using social media and blogging to build a personal brand is that it can be tweaked to suit your needs.
Just remember that engaging followers should never be put before your personal safety—and that what happens to your personal information online can affect your job, reputation, finances, and even put your family members at risk.
Reflecting on his own experience with a violation of privacy, Darren Rowse states:
“When you write in a public forum you are doing so with the hope that people will read you. The unfortunate side of this is that you have little control over the perceptions of others towards you and that from time to time people will disagree with you and even become agitated towards you. This is both one of blogging s biggest strengths (i.e., the conversation, diversity and dialogue) but also one of it's biggest weaknesses when it goes too far”.
The bottom line is that privacy is your right. However, both by following the preventative measures listed above and taking action to block someone who steps over the line, remember that protecting your personal information is your responsibility.
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