Social Networking and Business Travel: A Cautionary Tale

Social Networking is certainly not a fad and has increasingly become a primary communication tool of the information age.   Social networking can be a good way to make connections with friends, family and people with similar interests and goals. They can be a way to connect with or “meet” people that a person may not have had the opportunity to before – and for a business traveler this includes business prospects and existing customers.

Thanks to social networking sites, meeting someone in person has become a thing of the past. “Poking” has become the new handshake. Making friends and renewing old ones is easy. Thus, meeting people and staying connected with people that matter is a huge benefit of social networking sites.

The positives of social networking are undisputed, but it is important for the business traveler to be aware of the pitfalls of social networking and the risks it can pose both personally and professionally if they don’t apply proper safeguards to protect private and personal information.  Social networks can expose your information and shared activities to not only trusted friends and family members, but it also can expose that same information to friends of friends who may not be trusted or safe.

A major trend in Social Networking is the use of location check-in services like Foursquare, Facebook Places, Gowalla, TripIt and Google Latitude.  These services are useful to share the interesting places you are visiting with friends as well as sharing your location to enable them to find you.  When this information is shared with a trusted contact all is well, but all too often people are unaware of how vast their social network is and how this type of check-in information is exposed beyond your trusted friends to people you have no familiarity with.  Often I see people share their business trip information on social network sites broadcasting when they are traveling, where they are going and sometimes even where they are staying.  When your information is only communicated with friends who are 100% trusted, the risks are minimal. But the reality is many people do not safeguard their privacy settings and their information is exposed to many who are outside of their trusted circle of friends.  For example, a parent would never want their 13 year old child to publish on a social network their picture and where they will be at any given time, exposing them to potential predators.  Yet many adult business travelers do this every day, sharing travel information with friends, friends of friends and friends of friends of friends.  Is it any safer for an adult to share this information than for a pre-teen or teen????  There are risks to what information you share and who you share it with.  Business travelers need to be aware of that circle of communication before they share such sensitive information.

Another trend on social networking sites is sharing of status or the activities we are doing whether that be; “watching TV”, “going grocery shopping” or even “in NYC getting ready to sign a huge contract with MEGA CORPORATION.”  Again it is great to be able to share “moments” with those that matter, but increasingly many people have social networks that contain family, friends, friends of friends, business colleagues and even -your business competitors.   Many people are unaware of the ramifications of the information they share on social networks.  For business travelers the sharing of your location or a meeting with a prospect or signing a big business deal could have a serious impact on you professionally, putting not only your personal reputation at stake but your company as well.  Public companies are particularly protective of the information they expose publicly because that information could impact their stock price or position in the marketplace.  Broadcasting your business activities can also tip off your competition, giving them an opportunity to get a leg up on you in a crucial proposal or other business deal.

Social networking is here to stay.  It is a communication medium that connects people like no other.  That said, it is important for everyone, especially business travelers to safeguard themselves and what they do on social networking sites:

  • Be aware of who you are friends with.  Are your connections just trusted friends/family or are there other not so trusted people in your network like friends or friends or business competitors?
  • Check your privacy setting on your social network.  Many sites like Facebook provide setting that allow you to control what you share and to whom you share it with.  For example, creating a friends/family group which you can share all of your information with is a good idea while having a business group which is less trusted and limits what information is shared is a good practice.
  • Use common sense.  If you would not want your children to share certain information about themselves on social networks, ask yourself if you should exert the same controls on what you share.
  • Check with your HR Department if there is a policy on sharing company information on the Internet.  If there is, read it and follow it.  Companies provide such policies to minimize their risk and exposure.  It is the employees’ responsibility to adhere to these policies, otherwise face the repercussions.
  • Don’t forget other more private communication mediums like the telephone or e-mail for sharing sensitive information.  Just because social networks are the latest and greatest way to communicate, they are not necessarily the right medium to communicate certain information.

Be social be safe….

~ Jim Hetzel

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