by Karin Prangley and Edward Oh
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. 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.
Clients from these families can benefit from putting in place a collaborative agreement on 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,” is not 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), instead is to 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 not be paternalistic.1 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 to 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 doesn’t drive away possible commercial or philanthropic partners, but fairly represents who they are and what they represent.
Some of the risks outlined are frightening for families and may create the temptation to abstain from social medial altogether. While it’s perfectly fine for individuals to stay off social media, it’s 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 younger generation, an absolute ban on social media may simply be so stringent that it’s ignored. Instead, families must work collaboratively to create this social media policy to promote family values and protect against security threats.
A family can begin to create its social media policy by asking 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 financial harm or with an additional goal to enhance the family’s positive image and make the family’s legacy more articulate? If there’s a business within the family, the family needs to distinguish between business social media and family social media and how they can intersect. Will the family’s personal social media aim to reinforce the brand of the business or avoid mentioning the business entirely? Or will there be an impact from social media activities on the family’s philanthropic activities?
Avoiding Reputational Damage
While safety and security concerns are paramount for most families, reputational concerns also top the list of important items to discuss in a family social media policy. If the family desires to protect itself not only from crime, but also from reputational damage with its social media policy, family members need to post only positive, honest and accurate content or content that doesn’t elicit envy or controversy. While this might seem like a common sense rule, it’s much harder to remain positive, honest and accurate for a high-profile family who’s constantly under a public microscope.
Given the nature of the family, each family member’s conduct may unintentionally endanger the family, cause negative attention to the family or its business in the press or jeopardize an important relationship or philanthropic effort. So, a simple guideline such as “when in doubt, stop posting, and let’s talk” may work well.
Many family social media policies encourage a quiet demonstration of wealth, not only to prevent the family from theft and fraud, but also to show a value of modesty to avoid envy or resentment. If this value is to be encouraged on social media, posting content surrounding tangible items, experiences or property that’s only accessible to the wealthy should be avoided.
Some families will carefully evaluate whether social media endorsements of businesses or political candidates will be permitted. Certain families believe that when they attach their family name (or the name of an individual in the family) to a political candidate, business, product or service, they have no control over what the candidate, business, product or service does with that endorsement. Other families feel strongly that all political content be avoided and may even be required to do so for regulatory or legal reasons.
Enforcing a Family Social Media Policy
A family social media policy is not like a corporate social media policy that threatens termination or punitive action if it’s breached. After all, a social media policy is meant to protect the family and encourage its values. Breaches of the family social media policy must be discussed openly so that the family can learn along the way about how the policy and the family’s social media usage will evolve. Especially with young children, there may also be situations better addressed within an individual family unit where parents alone will be most effective to guide their children’s behavior. Many leave penalties for violation of the spirit of the social media policy to the family unit, except for repeated or egregious instances or violations that cause significant financial harm.
Talking about a family social media policy could be as simple as a 30-minute conversation around the dinner table. However, because technology is changing more rapidly than ever, it’s an essential conversation to have. An effective conversation about social media is also an important extension of parents’, grandparents’ and other family members’ efforts to instill good values in younger generations. With an understanding and acceptance of the family’s values and a little training on how to use social media effectively, families will achieve social media success.
1. We recommend two books on how to talk to adolescent children about proper social media use: Devorah Heitner’s Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World and Clayton Cranford’s Parenting in the Digital World: A Step-By-Step Guide to Internet Safety.