It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: when you’re an executive (especially at a high-profile company), your social media profiles are public. Yes, even if you label them “personal.” Yes, even if you don’t put the company’s name on them. Yes, even if you say that your views don’t represent your firm.

Pax Dickinson, former Chief Technology Officer at Business Insider, found this out the hard way yesterday, when the business news site ousted him after years of controversial tweets.

Among them: Dickinson tweeted, “women’s suffrage and individual freedom are incompatible,” “tech managers spend as much time worrying about how to hire talented female developers as they do worrying about how to hire a unicorn”and other unsavory and profanity-laced comments that I don’t feel comfortable repeating here.

Let’s leave aside whether you agree with Dickinson. A sensible executive would never say those things in the boardroom, at an investor meeting, or during a job interview. Sharing your thoughts on social media is like broadcasting them to all of the above groups, plus the rest of the world.

Maybe the Dickinson example is extreme. Most of you probably just post pictures of your cats and comment on your favorite sports team. And I understand that impulse. People sometimes tease CFOs for being a little dry, and you want to show some personality. But you have to be careful.

If you’re not Tim Cook or Reed Hastings, people probably aren’t hanging on your every tweet and post at all times. Indeed, Dickinson has been spewing his opinions on race, feminism, minimum wage and other hot-button topics on Twitter for years, so he may have thought that if the company were going to fire him, they would have done it already. And he, too, may have made the old “they can’t fire me if I include a disclaimer” mistake. In his Twitpic bio, the self-described “brogrammer” wrote, “If you think I speak for anyone but me seek treatment.”

But as Dickinson’s story proves, if you post something controversial, inappropriate, or even unintelligent on the Internet, and you’re in charge of a company, people will eventually hold you accountable. The fact that your comments haven’t blown up in your face yet does not mean you should keep on doing what you’re doing.

You might protest that your social media profile is personal. But unless your Twitter and Facebook profiles are set to “private,” they are public. Don’t take my word for it. Public relations firm Levick often advises companies and their leaders on their digital communications. I chatted with CEO Richard Levick this morning, and he said this: “Consumers and investors, and certainly journalists and other bloggers, don’t distinguish between what you do from nine to five and what you do between five and midnight. They assume that you’re still who you are, and they presume you to be a mini-brand.”

You are your own brand, CFOs. And at the very least, board members and investors are going to Google you before they meet you. When you present the company’s earnings or ask for a new line of credit, do you want them to be thinking of your financial acumen or the fact that you like #PumpkinChaiLattes and spend your weekends at the casino, tossing back #WhiskeySours?

And not to pile it on, but the way you use social media can reveal something about you even if you’re not writing anything controversial. For instance, let’s say you’re an executive at a technology-oriented firm. If you’re using Twitter, you’d better make sure you understand the latest user trends, lest you look like “an old”. (Quick tips: Internet lingo like “LOL” and “ROTFL” are somewhat passé. Use hashtags sparingly and ironically. And for goodness’ sake, don’t tweet at yourself.)

And what about Facebook — you can certainly have a personal page on the social network, right? It depends, Levick says. Maybe it’s okay to post pictures of your family on your private page. But you have to think about what message that sends. “If you’re a company engaged in security, is that really a smart thing to do?” he asks. “Or what about if you travel to countries where kidnapping is a risk of doing business?” It may be better to save family photos for email or face-to-face visits, Levick says.

Maybe more germane here: are you sure you understand Facebook’s privacy settings? They change an awful lot. Stephanie Dressler, director of digital strategy at Dukas Public Relations, suggests that you go to a computer browser where you’re not logged in to Facebook or Google, and search for your name and “Facebook.” That will give you an idea of what other people see when they search for you.

Dressler also says you should keep up with the social platforms you use. So if you’re on LinkedIn, log in every once in a while and manage your requests and messages. Leaving them hanging could mean missing connections with potential clients or partners, she says.

CFOs, if you use social media, the Pax Dickinson controversy has given you a second chance. Fix your privacy settings on the various platforms and reevaluate what you post. And if you were unwise enough to write an offending tweet, Facebook or LinkedIn post, take it down. Don’t say anything on social media that you wouldn’t say to your grandmother, in front of your human resources director or during a meetings with investors. As Levick says, “the way to preserve your company and your internal brand is to only tweet and post to Facebook those things that you don’t mind being seen in the light of the day. I appreciate that there are spontaneous and instantaneous forms of media, but you have to always be ‘on.’”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user rossbreadmore. CC-BY

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