Janet Truitte recently became CEO of Truitte Building Materials (TBM), a 45-year-old business founded by her father. Janet's youngest son, Samuel, recently posted photos of his kitchen remodeled on social media, which showed several over-the-top design elements that not only conflicted with TBM'S mission to provide simple and affordable design, but also highlighted a few competing brands. Samuel's decorator picked up the post on Twitter and included a hashtag reference to some of the competing brands. The decorator did not realize that Samuel's mother owned TBM. Shortly thereafter, one of the brands referenced by the decorator retweeted the post, commenting that "even the owners of TBM prefer our products."
During a vacation to St. Barts, James posts a photo on Instagram with a caption about how grateful he is to his grandfather, a well-known philanthropist, for taking his family to such a lovely beach. What no one knew at the time of the Instagram post was that an identity of one of the grandchildren. The identity thief sees the post and takes advantage of an opportunity to complete the crime. When the family returns home, James finds that his mail, including a sensitive bank account statement, has been stolen.
Numerous studies have shown that families of means are more frequently targeted by identity thieves and cybercriminals, as they tend to have greater credit, complicated assets and multiple bank accounts, giving thieves more to gain from their criminal efforts.1 Stalkers, kidnappers, blackmailers and con artists have also been known to target the wealthy online, and social media sites are a deep source of information for those who know what to look for. Creating a social media policy that protects the digital and physical safety of the family is essential for many high-profile wealthy families.
Both families in the earlier examples would benefit from putting in place a collaborative agreement for how each family member’s social media can protect the safety of all family members and promote the family’s legacy and values. This collaborative agreement, often called a family social media policy, should not be an edict from the family elders (except perhaps in a few areas described later in this article, where the family’s safety is at risk), but instead be developed with input from all generations. While an edict of social media “dos and don’ts” created by parents can be appropriate for young children, a collaborative family social media policy of this sort is meant to apply to both adults and children within the family and should not be paternalistic.2 Talking openly about social media in a broader family setting can present a great opportunity to align the family’s values with its online presence and can help all family members make safe, appropriate choices surrounding social media. A collaborative family social media policy can also support parents of young children within the family in their efforts to teach their children how to be good digital citizens.
A family’s online reputation can be a substantial asset. Maintaining a positive online reputation with the help of a social media policy is critical for families with substantial business or philanthropic activities. Families want to ensure that what others learn about them in an online search does not drive away possible commercial or philanthropic partners, but fairly represents who they are and what their family is about.
Some of the risks outlined are frightening for families and may create the temptation to abstain from social medial altogether. While it is perfectly fine for individuals to stay off social media, it is likely unrealistic to ban social media usage for a large and/or multigenerational family. There may be valid professional reasons for using social media, and for the youngest generation, an absolute ban on social media may simply be so stringent that it is ignored. Instead, families should work collaboratively to create a realistic social media policy that promotes the family’s values and protects against security threats.
A family can begin to create its social media policy by asking itself what purpose members hope to serve with their social media accounts. Is the goal of the social media policy to simply protect the family from embarrassment, identity theft, fraud and physical harm? Or is an additional goal to enhance or promote the family’s positive image and to make the family’s legacy more articulate? If there is a business within the family, the family should address how the social media surrounding the business and the social media surrounding the family personally should intersect. Will the family’s personal social media aim to enhance the brand of the business or avoid mentioning the business entirely? The family should also consider the impact that any philanthropic activities have on social media activities.