Today, life's different. Search engines and social media make anything published online as easy to find as the stuff on the front page of today's NYT. So let's amend the advice: Do not post anything online that you wouldn't want the entire world — including all your audience and customers — to see.
What do you have up on the Web right now that you might not want the people you're asking to fund your website to see? Pictures on Facebook? Posts on Twitter? Discussion board rants? If anyone wants to find something online that embarrasses or humiliates you, if it's up anywhere, someone will find it.
Think of it this way: Your business now is getting people to pay attention to what you do. If you are successful, it means that people will now be paying attention to what you do. Are you ready to accept full responsibility for that?
Be as aggressive in projecting and protecting a good personal reputation online as you are with any other aspect of your business. Have you registered your domain name? I'm not talking about your publication's domain name. I'm talking about yourfirstnameyourlastname.com. If it is available, go get it right now. Don't worry about building a website for it yet. Just secure the domain before anyone else can get it. Once you become a public person, someone else will try to register it — and you might not like the result. Your name is your personal brand and you want to protect it online as aggressively as you will protect the brand of your publication. Register Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Gmail and other social media accounts for your name, if you haven't done that already.
If you've established those accounts already, go back through them and look at what you've posted there. If you need to delete any potentially embarrassing content, do it now — don't wait. And resolve to be a better Internet citizen going forward.
I have a personal Twitter account and Facebook page, in addition to Twitter and Facebook accounts for ThemeParkInsider.com. I consider these completely different voices and maintain strict personal rules about what I'll post to each account. I like to talk about politics, sports, business and Internet culture on my @robertniles Twitter account. Those are my interests, and I love engaging with other Twitter users to discuss them. But I would never post anything remotely political on my @themepark Twitter account. That's the voice of ThemeParkInsider.com, and I keep it much more sharply focused.
If you'll be maintaining more than one Twitter account, be very careful about remembering which account you're logged into before you post. You don't want to end up like the American Red Cross' social media staffer who in February 2011 forgot which account she was logged into, and posted to the Red Cross Twitter account:
"Ryan found two more 4 bottle packs of Dogfish Head's Midas Touch beer.... when we drink we do it right #gettngslizzerd"
Whoops! To its credit, the Red Cross handled this incident spectacularly well, owning up to its staffer's mistake and showing a sense of humor about it. It Tweeted:
"We've deleted the rogue tweet but rest assured the Red Cross is sober and we've confiscated the keys."
The beer company referenced in the original Tweet helped turn the episode into a win by asking its followers to donate to the Red Cross, and Tweet about it when they did — using the hashtag #gettngslizzerd, of course.
Your private interaction with readers and customers also will influence your public persona. How many times have you seen tabloid stories citing unnamed waiters or house staff tattling about their work with celebrities? If your business becomes as popular as you hope it will be, its success will make you a celebrity of sorts within your community. If you treat a reader or customer rudely — no matter how badly they deserved it, in your view — expect word about that to get around.
Don't blow up at your readers. Ever. No matter how much one might provoke you. Not only is being nice the good and decent thing to do, it will help protect your public persona. Imagine the TMZ cameras on you at all times, and respond to both questions and provocations alike with grace. Respond promptly to emails (with 24 hours, at most), and try to be kind when you do.
My go-to answer — even if I have nothing to say — is "thank you for writing." If someone's taken the time to reach out to you, that's the very least you owe him or her in return. Try not to assume that an emotional email or phone call is hostile, as difficult as that might be. It could be that the person contacting you is just really passionate about an issue, and that's coming across as a confrontational tone. Your job, as publisher, is to be the grown-up and handle the situation with patience and maturity.
And do not forget that, sometimes, the mature response is to gracefully end the conversation. Thank someone for writing or calling, then end it. While you should try to diffuse and resolve situations, bail when you get to the point where you feel this is turning into abuse. You don't deserve that. Resist the urge to lash out, or take a parting shot — just get away.
Fortunately, in my experience, almost all of my contact with readers has been positive. On February 29, 2012, Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom ran promotions where those theme parks would be open for 24 consecutive hours on Leap Day. With thousands of Disney theme park fans, I lined up to enter Disneyland when the park opened for its 24-hour run at 6 a.m. that morning. I'd decided that I would Tweet what I was doing throughout the day, so readers who couldn't get to the parks could visit vicariously, through me.
So a little after 7 a.m., I Tweeted that I was about to get on the Astro Orbitor ride — those little two-person rocket jets that spin in a circle at the front of the park's Tomorrowland. Just 15 seconds later, a person who also was waiting to board stepped over to me and asked, "Are you Robert Niles?" He'd been following my Tweets, and realized that I must be in the same queue as he was. He looked around and found the guy who looked like my picture from the site, and decided to say hello. I met several other ThemeParkInsider.com readers in the park that day, using social media to find each other.
Confession time: I am one of the shyest, most socially anxious and pathetically insecure people you will ever meet, but I find a way to put that aside whenever I meet a reader. How? I think about how having readers makes my business possible. Without the loyal attention and support of my publication's readers, I wouldn't be able to have the publishing job I love so much. That gratitude allows me to get over my anxiety and shyness, and to smile, be happy and thankful with every reader I meet. And once I'm past my initial fear, I can see the really cool person in front of me, someone with whom I usually have much more than a website community in common.
Your website's brand starts with you — with your personal brand. You will become the initial face of your website, and the way you approach, treat and respond to people will define the way people feel about your publication. And it will inspire your website's action team as it interacts with new and potential site supporters as well. The personal touch matters, even for an online publication. A hundred articles on a website won't make the impression upon a reader that saying hello and talking with him in a Disneyland queue can.
Register yourfirstnameyourlastname as a .com Internet domain, and as an account name on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, if you have not yet done that and they're still available.
Once you have a Twitter account — start using it. Read my former co-worker Steve Buttry's excellent advice on using Twitter for inspiration: <http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2012/08/06/advice-and-examples-on-how-and-what-journalists-should-tweet>. Then resolve to Tweet at least 10 times a day for the next 10 days just to get into the habit. Use this as an excuse to further sharpen your observational skills, as you look around for interesting scenes and details in your community to Tweet. Tell friends about your Twitter account, use hashtags, follow others who Tweet about things you find interesting, and when someone responds to your Tweets, respond back to continue the conversation.
This post is excerpted from Robert's How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online. For more advice, examples and exercises on starting and running a profitable online news site, download the eBook or buy the paperback edition from Amazon.com.
Robert Niles also can be found at http://www.themeparkinsider.comTweet
© Robert Niles. Read more in the column archive.