Heather Harper

G. A. Finch interviews Heather Harper, associate executive director of the John Marshall Law School Center for Real Estate in Chicago.  Harper formerly practiced law at Paul Hastings and Sidley Austin.  Finch and Harper both presented on Networking 104: Navigating the Social Web at the John Marshall Law School.  This interview follows up on Harper’s presentation.

FINCH:  Heather, I really learned a lot about the business potential of Facebook and Twitter from your presentation on Networking 104: Navigating the Social Web.  I know that Your Executive Life Blog readers will benefit from your insights as well.

First of all, like many professionals and executives, I do not use Facebook or Twitter for business purposes.   In fact, I do not use either at all, but do use LinkedIn and I blog.  Many people are looking to be convinced of the business utility of Facebook and Twitter. Let’s talk about the social medium Facebook. Why should an executive use Facebook for other than personal purposes?


HARPER:  I think executives, like all people using Facebook professionally, need to be strategic and thoughtful about whether to use Facebook professionally and how to be effective.  Executives should keep in mind that Facebook started, and is still for many people, a purely social site for connecting with friends and families.  However, many industries have strong presences on Facebook for commercial purposes.  For executives, I would follow your customers.  Customers prefer vendors who understand and respect their business.  If your customers are tech-savvy online businesses that have a strong presence on Facebook, your company’s absence may convey that you are out of touch.  If your customers are like some customer clients who are not on Facebook and look at it as a risky medium, it could be detrimental for you to be on Facebook professionally.

In all areas of social media, executives should continue to learn about new tools and think strategically about using them to achieve specific goals rather than jumping on the bandwagon because everyone else is doing it or eschewing the tool without much thought.

FINCH:  What are the most interesting features of Facebook to know about and utilize?

HARPER: I’m a pretty standard Facebook user.  I watch the News Feed (the scrolling list of status updates, pictures, etc.), upload pictures, write on people’s walls, and I “like” many group/organization/business pages. 

Although I don’t often use many of the interesting features, I’ll give you one example of a recent use.   Facebook has a check-in feature that allows a user to broadcast his/her location to a large group, presumably to meet.  I don’t use it.  However, the other day I noticed that some family friends checked in at Little Beans Café.  The couple that checked-in has an infant son who is a little younger than our son.  We thought it would be fun to meet them at this play location, so we hopped in the car and went to this local business.  I’m sure the owners of Little Beans Café appreciated the free advertising for them.  I discovered a great place, and I’m sure I’ll return!  

FINCH:  What are the boundaries between personal and professional use?

HARPER: Everyone will have different boundaries between personal and professional use.  Whether you use Facebook professionally, personally, or both, it is prudent to look at every posting through the eyes of someone you respect.  In my case, that’s my father.  If I post something that would embarrass my father or make him cringe, it’s probably not the best thing to put out there for the whole world to see.  Even if you use Facebook personally, you want to make sure your online presence is a positive and accurate representation of you.

Facebook has been known to change privacy settings, so something you thought was totally private could end up being broadcast to a larger audience.  In my opinion, it’s always in poor taste and bad judgment to openly ridicule people on Facebook, especially people related to your career, such as co-workers, employers, or clients.  Try to keep it positive and about you. 

In my opinion, personal profile pages should really be primarily personal.  If you want to use Facebook professionally, it is best to create a separate company profile that people can “like”. 

For personal Facebook pages, the issue becomes who should be your Facebook friend.  It is certainly easiest to limit Facebook to personal use.  You will be able to speak and share with friends and family only, without having to worry about blurring professional lines.  However, there are limitations to this approach.  Are you friends with some of your co-workers?  Are you friends with some of your customers or clients?  Professionals often make friends through work contacts.  I can’t provide an easy answer for this one.  It all depends on the user’s comfort level.  As long as you are mindful of your friend list and obey the general rule that you should only post things that you would want someone you respect to see, you should avoid most uncomfortable situations.  Remember it’s always appropriate to tell professional connections that you use Facebook personally and would like to connect on LinkedIn.

FINCH:  How would a business page work on Facebook and would it be appropriate for every industry?

HARPER:  This question is a long one to unwind.  First, it’s not appropriate for every industry.  I think people in industry should continue to check back and reevaluate, but right now I don’t think Facebook is appropriate for some of the more traditional industries (law, financial services, consulting, etc.).   Here are just a few businesses/organizations that really do well on Facebook:

–          Companies that make something.  If you make a product, you better have it on Facebook so I can “like” it.  For instance, I found this great product called Way Basics.  They have a page on Facebook:  I instantly liked it on Facebook because I wanted to share this product with my friends and because liking it on Facebook says something about me (I like eco-friendly products).  If you make something, you should be on Facebook.

–          Advocacy groups, non-profits, and/or political groups.  If you are political, Facebook is a great way to get the word out.  Obama famously used Facebook during his election.  You can check him out:  If you’re trying to organize, it’s a great way to get people on-board.

–          Companies that are trying to drive traffic to a site online.  If you’re a company that is trying to drive traffic to your website, it’s a good idea to be online.  One caveat – if you’re an executive  and you’re trying to drive traffic to your organization’s site, try to think if the people you want visiting your site are on Facebook and/or expect to find you on Facebook.  If the answer is no, this is probably not the place for you.

Right now, I don’t think it makes sense for very traditional businesses to be on Facebook.  There should be a reason for being there.  Here’s a great example – ComEd.  This utility’s Facebook page is peculiar:  Why is it there? 

FINCH:   What are your thoughts on privacy filters?

HARPER:  I think privacy filters are a nice way for people to set boundaries.  One word of warning – although it hasn’t happened in a while, Facebook did change privacy settings without letting everyone know.  Don’t assume that privacy filters are 100% or that they will never change. 

I personally don’t worry too much about filters because I use Facebook for personal use and I don’t post anything embarrassing or inappropriate.  I give full access to my friends and very little access to people outside of my friend network.


FINCH:  For the uninitiated like me, what are the mechanics and features of Twitter?

HARPER:  There are people who spend a lot of time on Twitter who could give you a much better answer.  I’ll just touch on a few features.  For those who want to figure out how Twitter fits in the larger social network spectrum, it’s easiest to think of it as a conversation.  When you tweet, you are participating in a conversation.  Tweets are also relatively ephemeral – people see them and then they disappear into people’s feed.  While someone could go to your Twitter page and read old tweets, I don’t think this is how most people use the tool. 

In Twitter, people (or companies) follow other people (or companies).  If you follow someone, their tweets show up on your feed.  The most basic way to use Twitter is to follow people who have interesting things to say and to tweet things that interest you.  Simple tweeting is limited in scope; you will only reach those who follow you.

If you think of Twitter as a conversation, it becomes easier to see how the use of @ marks and # tags makes your conversation more tailored and interactive.  You can direct a tweet at a person or organization by using “@” before that person’s Twitter name.  This increases your Twitter reach in two ways.  First, you show up in that influential person/company’s feed, so if you want to talk to someone who is influential in your industry, this is an access point.  Second, your tweet will appear for all followers of the person you are speaking to on Twitter.  If you use @[insert influential person here], your tweet will be read by more people.  Identifying well-respected Twitter users in your industry is essential.

Another way to increase your interactivity is to engage in topic-specific speech.  Topics are denoted with # before the name of the topic.  For instance, I went to a conference last fall – GreenBuild.  While I was there, I followed #greenbuild.  People were discussing the event as it happened.  This is a good example of people coming together to “talk” on Twitter about a relevant issue.  You should also know the most relevant topics areas in your industry.

Once you know the hot topic areas and Twitter users, you can craft your tweets to be directed at people and topics, giving them more visibility.  For instance, instead of saying “check out my new website”.   You might say “@person1 @person2 @person 3 check out my new website #topic 1 #topic 2 #topic3”.

FINCH:   What are the bad uses of Twitter?

HARPER:  In my opinion, tweeting trivial personal details is a mistake.  When Twitter first started, I think people were wondering how it would be used.  I see less trivial personal tweeting and more engaged discussion on focused topics. 

FINCH:   How does an executive or professional effectively use Twitter?

HARPER:  You use Twitter to share information in your industry.  You can use it to promote your blog, comment on current events and news, and follow other people.  Twitter is a conversation with one difference – the conversation is broadcast for everyone to see.  If you engage in thoughtful discourse in your industry, and your industry accepts Twitter as a means of communication, you can establish yourself as an expert.

FINCH:  Do you have a recommendation as to how much time one should spend on Twitter as opposed to all the other available social media including Facebook and LinkedIn?

HARPER: Not really.  I think it is very idiosyncratic.  I don’t personally tweet much.  I participate by following.  It’s a personal decision.  I know some people feel overwhelmed by social media, but I’ve never felt seduced into spending ridiculous amounts of time using Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. 

FINCH:  How often is too often in tweeting?

HARPER:  It depends.  One way to look at it is this – if you have thousands of tweets and only 25 people following you, you may be tweeting too much.  However, I see people who tweet pretty much non-stop during the day.  As long as you have something interesting or relevant to say or share, tweet away!  I personally get annoyed when people tweet obvious or useless statements.  I love it when people share links.

FINCH:  I worry that people are spending too much time in the virtual world of social media and the internet generally to the detriment of natural face-to-face interaction and live conversations.   Will good writing and speaking and social skills deteriorate as a result?  What are your thoughts?

HARPER:  I don’t think so.  Social media isn’t replacing in-person interactions.  We’re just communicating much more and much more quickly than people did in years past.  I find the interplay between social media and in-person events the most fascinating.  I love that I can attend a conference and also attend an online Twitter discussion of that conference simultaneously.  It is as if everyone in room had an opportunity to add depth and perspective.  I use Facebook personally.  I still call, Skype and visit my friends frequently!  Facebook allows me to skip past the boring “what have you been up to” because we already know.  Instead of updating each other, we’re talking about our lives.

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