CEOs and Facebook: What's Too Much Information?

Last Updated Nov 3, 2009 7:12 PM EST

Today I thought I'd answer the question Chip Conley asked BNET readers about a CEO's private life and Facebook. Chip is the CEO of Joie de Vivre, a very cool hospitality company that runs a variety of extremely chic hostelries. I myself have stayed in some of them, and I assure you nothing about the CEO of the corporation interested me in the least while I was there. I did like the free happy hour wine and cheese, though. But Chip raises an interesting question about CEO imagery that I think is worth considering for a few minutes.

The controversy is this: Chip is a bit of an alternative lifestyle fellow, and as such, every few years attends the Burning Man rave thing in the middle of nowhere. It's sort of the Davos for hipster business types who want to achieve high levels of consciousness with a dash of Native American spirituality thrown into their high capitalist hoodoo. It's also attended by showbiz types, Zen networkers, and crazy people looking for sex, drugs, and what have you. Think Daytona Beach at spring break mingled with Lalapalooza with a dash of Carlos Castaneda thrown in. So Chip went there and took his shirt off and pictures were taken, some of which he posted on his own Facebook page. (Here I'm going to ignore my natural condescending repugnance at people over 30 who post stuff on Facebook and move on.)

Suddenly there were pictures of the CEO of Joie de Vivre looking slightly wrecked all over the Internet, available to any employee, customer, or random surfer who cared to look. Horrors! I think we're all very fortunate that Chip chose to air only the shirtless pix. I guarantee you there were others. Naked is the new informal-wear at Burning Man. Once the pictures were up there, Chip ran into some flak from his HR and PR people, who felt his behavior was unbecoming to the august persona of CEO of a company dedicated to the hedonistic pleasures of its customers. This seems ridiculous to me. But then, I'm not his PR guy. Chip poses the philosophical question this way:

"What, exactly, does it take to damage the image of the company? Sometimes it's straightforward -- employees can't, for example, write about trade secrets -- but other times, it's not. What if pictures emerge of a desk host drinking from a beer bong at a football game, or decked out in an S&M getup at an underground club? I'd have no problem with that, although I know plenty of CEOs who would. To me, that's an employee's private life. Take it a step farther -- the employee is shown stealing municipal signs, for instance -- and I would have a problem with it. Even worse would be if that employee is wearing a Joie de Vivre shirt. In other words, it's a case-by-case basis. ... I do think it's important that companies have a social media policy, and I don't think I violated the one my company just rolled out. Should a CEO be held to a different standard?"

Some thoughts here. First of all, Chip is right: in this instance, a company shirt would be worse than no shirt. A few years ago, I worked for a cable company that employed a variety of types to install cable. If you've ever had cable installed, you know what I mean. One of our installers made the front page of the New York Post, where he was pictured with two machine guns, one in each hand, and matching bandoleros draped across his chest. The article noted this gentleman's place of employment deep within the body of the article. Just five minutes before the picture was taken, he had removed his shirt, the one with the company logo on its chest. Believe me, we all breathed a sigh of relief at corporate headquarters. You don't want the company's brand mixed up with any funny business. So Chip's shirtlessness was, in a business sense, far less egregious than if he had mixed up his brand with that of his firm.

Secondly, Chip asks whether he, as CEO, had set up a double standard vis a vis the company's social media policy. I don't know. He says he hasn't. He's the boss. I guess that means he hasn't. I can tell you that it's a rare company indeed that can keep its employees from expressing their Burning Man personalities on the web. People have to use judgment, of course. But appearing goofy, messed up, and covered with sand and goodwill is not illegal as far as I can tell.

So speaking narrowly, I would say that Chip is on solid ground. He should stop tormenting himself and tell his HR and PR guys to get a sense of humor. They work for this particular CEO. This is his personality. Instead of making him feel bad about himself, they might think about how to leverage his oddities into part of the brand identity. How about an ad with a picture of Chip topless and copy that reads, "This is our CEO. We want you to have as good a time as he does. Joie de Vivre"?

There is a larger issue here, though; one that Mr. Conley might spend some time thinking about if he'd like to. (If he doesn't want to, of course, he can bag it. Like I said, he runs the place. And that's the point.) There are things a leader can do that will forever diminish him in the eyes of those with whom he works. The wrong picture, the wrong action, can strip him or her of the aura of authority in which much of his power resides. Imagine Winston Churchill appearing in the press in a bathing suit. Would he still have been able to address his nation in precisely the same way? I think not. On the other hand, I don't think anybody would think less of Barak Obama if he was seen swimming off Oahu. Why? Because Mr. Obama probably looks awesome and dignified in a tasteful swimsuit, and Mr. Churchill would not. On the other hand, people routinely saw Churchill with an entire bottle of brandy in him. He was clearly intoxicated by noon on many days. Nobody minded much. If you saw President Obama listing slightly on his way into a state dinner? Completely out of character. Disquieting. Destabilizing.

It's all about the individual leader, the style they have set up for themselves, and whether the employees' expectation of predictable behavior is being violated. In Chip's case, I bet his employees know he's a bit of a party animal. He looks downright saucy in his picture, too. Not an ounce of fat on the boy. Good for him. If he should worry about anything, it's probably that demented expression and the wacky glasses, which are a lot more questionable than his buffness. A naked man can make all kinds of proper business decisions. A goofball, on the other hand...