There was a time in which a clear divide existed. There were official words and non-official words. There were moments that counted and moments that would not be held against you. There were times where you functioned in the role as a leader and other times where you got to simply be yourself. But those days are gone.
In today’s world, you are never off the record.
I wish it wasn’t the case. I wish we still lived in a world where people could relax and not have to worry about who is watching or listening. Leaders especially deserve a space where they can let their guard down. But it’s not the world in which we live. (See: You Control What Matters Most)
In a digital, social-media driven world, everything is on the record and the record will never be erased.
We may not like it, but we better learn to deal with it.
Over the past month, I’ve listened to two very high profile leaders speak at private events. Both were assured no media would be present.
The first leader took the opportunity to speak more openly from his heart about things of faith and family. It was a refreshing conversation, but there was no mistaking, he was still guarded. He understands the day in which we live. While he might be more open in a private setting, there is still caution. He knows word can leak in our social-media crazed world, so while he might have been more open than normal, he was careful there was nothing said that, if it did get out, would hurt him. (See: What No One Ever Tells You About Being a Leader)
The second leader took a different approach. He was hilarious. He felt extreme freedom in the absence of the formal media and he played up to the crowd he was speaking to. It was refreshing to see someone famous being that free, but it was also risky. As I sat, listened and laughed, it was easy to envision a day where his candor could be his downfall. Maybe he doesn’t care, maybe he doesn’t understand, maybe he had too much to drink, but he spoke in a way a leader simply cannot speak in this day.
It doesn’t matter what anyone says, you are never off the record. This is true for two reasons:
1. The media doesn’t exist. It used to. In years past there was a clear media machine that dictated which message was communicated and which wasn’t. They determined the news. Because they determined the news, they set the rules. One general rule was, if you told them you were off the record, they wouldn’t print your words. (At least they weren’t supposed to. More than once I have said, “Off the record I can say ____,” only to find my words then reported.) (See: Why Others Don’t Trust You)
But the media no longer exists. The game has changed. They are no longer in charge so they can no longer make the rules. Everyone is the media in today’s world. While size varies, we all have an audience. We all have influence. We all have the tools to record, video, edit and produce various forms of media. Individually, we don’t have much power, but corporately, traditional media forms can’t compare to our power. Someone is at every event, every meeting, every location, and they are armed with access to the world (through Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media).
2. The record is never erased. There was a time in which a quote or act had a shelf-life. If word didn’t get out immediately, it would forever be forgotten. This is no longer the case. Everything you say can and will be used against you. When a college basketball player experienced his dream come true of being drafted by a team in the NBA, he should have spent the night celebrating his achievement. Instead he spent the night explaining a tweet he had written when he was 16. One-hundred-and-forty characters, fished out of his record from six years earlier was the central story on the most important day of the young player’s life.
The first thing I do when considering a person for a job is to review their social media history. It’s a great gift to employers. Forget the resume, a Facebook history is far more telling. It is terrifying to consider, but it is the reality of our world. (See: The One Piece of Advice I Would Give a 7th Grader)
While the combination of these two points can be frightening, it doesn’t have to paralyze leaders. They must be guarded and wise. Yet more than anything, the key is to always be who you are. Not perfect. Not without fault. But consistently in every circumstance, be the same person.
The greatest danger in the “you are never off the record” world is for the person who tries to be one thing in one situation and something else in another. They will be called out. There is no doubt, there will come a time when their duplicity will be shown. If you are putting on an act, the act will be short-lived.
The secret in the new reality is to always be who you are.
Be the same person in every situation. Admit your inabilities and faults. Be quick to confess mistakes. Treat everyone the same—rich or poor, powerful or powerless, friend or stranger.
When a person’s true character pours through in every aspect of their lives, living in this world will not be easy, but it will be easier than for those who try to live in multiple ways.