- This article is about online safety and staying safe as you grow your online presence. It references child pornography, trolls and threats to personal safety.
- Please be aware that if you have a history of domestic or family violence, this post has not covered the type of safety considerations you need to take into account as you grow your online business. That will be covered in the future in a separate post.
- And finally, if you have a history of trauma or PTSD there are other considerations to take into account when growing your visibility online. Again, these issues are not covered here but will be addressed in a future post.
Tim Ferriss wrote a piece recently about the downside of fame. For most people who feel some fear when they think about visibility, the article may confirm your greatest fears and reinforce a story you’re probably familiar with which is that visibility is not worth the effort.
But given how critical visibility is to running a business, it’s vitally important that you don’t use this as an excuse to remain invisible. Instead, let’s talk about how to stay safe as you expand your reach and exposure.
First up let’s be clear about something; there’s fame and there’s fame.
There’s the Oprah and Prince Harry/Meghan Markle level of fame, there’s the fame that comes with being a politician, a movie star or a rock star, there’s Tim Ferriss’ level of fame, there’s that first hint of fame you get when you work online and someone fan girls over you for the first time, and then there’s everything in between.
In our School of Visibility (SOV) community we have women ranging from not working online at all, to women with sizeable communities in the tens of thousands+ who are looking to up-level their reach.
Let’s begin with those first phases of online fame. If you’ve been working from the coaching industry’s visibility handbook you’ve probably been posting a lot of pictures of yourself on your IG account, you’ve shared some intimacies about yourself so people can get to know you and feel more connected to you, and perhaps you’ve mentioned the town you live in or you’ve shared pictures of your house or kids.
Before you do any more work around increasing your visibility, here are a few things to consider;
If your home address public knowledge?
If so, please change that now. It’s just a whole lot safer if that’s not in the public domain. People knowing the city you live in is one thing, people knowing the street you live in is quite another.
Do you have kids?
If so, please have a conversation with them and with any other people caring for the children about whether they want their photos shared with thousands of strangers online. Personally I’m really cautious about the photos I share of my kids. My daughter wants to start a You Tube channel so we’ll see how things unfold in the future, but for now in my own work, my kids don’t need to be the feature.
Yes, it’s nice to have family shots that make your audience feel like you’re relatable but we also live in a world where the porn industry is a trillion dollar industry and photos of kids are stolen, bought and sold every minute. So, if you do share photos of your kids, take some time to think about how you want your kids represented in those photos and whether you want people to see their faces at all. For me, I occasionally share a side or back profile with the world at large. When I want to share a face shot of my kids, that goes to a limited group of people only.
Have you made a call about your personal and public social pages?
When you first start working online, you probably already have a personal social media page. Perhaps it’s a Facebook page or an IG account. You might start by talking about your business on that page but generally it feels a bit weird because Aunt Joan and Uncle Bob follow you there, not to mention old colleagues and friends from school.
The reality is that your personal page probably isn’t filled with your ideal customers anyway, so you start a business page. That’s all good for a while but then your community and your online peers start friending you on your private page and over time, that space starts looking more like a work space than a private space.
At this point, you have to make a call. If you’re going to have a private space, make it genuinely private and direct people who would otherwise friend you there, toward your public spaces. Alternatively make everything public. That way, you won’t get yourself in a situation where you’re inadvertently sharing private information in public spaces.
I’ve taken the approach of making everything public and always posting with that in mind. Long ago I gave up on any notion of having a private social media presence and I’m very comfortable with that.
Obviously there’s no right or wrong approach. Just make a decision in the knowledge that what you share online sticks around forever. So if you have big dreams, behave in a way that future you – 5 or 10 years down the track – would benefit from the most.
As you grow your online presence, the next lot of issues tend to revolve around people’s expectations of you. Here are some things to keep in mind as you navigate your way through that minefield:
People think they know you (and that’s on you)
If you’re in people’s ears, or on their screens, or in their inboxes every week, people assume a certain level of familiarity with you. They feel attached to you. And despite having created that situation, if you’re a shy person, that will invariably make you feel uncomfortable.
It can also lead to awkward moments where you’re at a conference for example and people come up to you in a very familiar manner and start a conversation but forget to introduce themselves (because they think of you as a friend). That leaves you wondering whether you know them or not and uncertain about how to ask without offending them.
When you’re in that situation please remember that you have been fostering this kind of loyalty and generally people just want a chance to thank you. So be as gracious as you can be whilst still honouring your own needs (you don’t for example want to be stuck in the one spot until 2am in the morning because you haven’t been able to get away from people who want ‘just a minute of your time’ to pick your brain or tell you how much they love your work). And if you’re an introvert, be sure to book a hotel room to yourself when you’re at a conference. You’ll absolutely need the downtime after all of that engagement.
From a safety perspective, most of the time this relationship isn’t dangerous at all. In fact, these people will protect you from danger. But it can be awkward so it’s best to know that going in and develop some social skills around that.
Things can change fast
The thing that can come as a surprise is how bolshy people can become and how fast that can happen when they think they know you. The familiarity they’ve developed thanks to you being visible in their lives tends to create expectations around how you’re going to treat them. They can for example, expect more intimacy or access to you than you might expect. If you don’t then live up to that expectation, people can become affronted or disillusioned and turn on you very quickly.
So boundaries, boundaries, boundaries.
Here are some ways to set them;
- If you’re at a conference, it’s good to have a business bestie who can play wing woman for you, pulling you away when the need arises. Or you might want to host a meet up somewhere in the hotel for your community to catch up within one another and with you at a specified time.
- If you’re at the supermarket with your kids, make sure your family members all know your ‘please interrupt this conversation’ signal.
- If you’re on your own, be sure you’ve practiced your elegant conversation disruptors. I have a friend who met Queen Elizabeth II a while back and the overriding impression they came away with is just how incredible she is at having a polite conversation and then moving you along without you feeling like you’ve been brushed off. Of course Lizzy has had a lifetime of practice and lots of structure and people set up around her to avoid long conversations, so no one expects you to pull it off with quite her level of grace. Do remember however that this is a skill like any other and take some time to practice it.
- Remember that on the whole, people just want to feel seen and heard. They’ve seen you everyday on their IG feed. They’ve heard you on their phone. Being full present with them for just a moment to reciprocate that is one of the best ways for you to thank them for their attention.
Reciprocity is everything
Where things can shift from healthy connection to uncomfortable or unsettling is when people want more from you than you’re willing to give. This is especially the case for women who’ve been conditioned since birth to suppress their own needs and support others in the fulfilment of theirs.
If you’re in the content marketing space, then chances are you’re already giving away a lot of your knowledge through your live videos or podcast episodes or blog posts.
If you don’t sprinkle your giving with a sufficient amount of asking (for the sale), people can get the impression that you’re a never ending stream of free information, which can definitely have its downsides.
One is that people start to think that your time as well as your wisdom is up for grabs.
That’s when it becomes common for people to start asking you to meet them for coffee or to invite you to show up at an event they’re hosting (without payment. Sadly, this seems to happen more to women than men. Whether that’s because women’s work and time is less economically valued than men’s or because men are better conditioned to say no with impunity, it’s hard to say).
As an introvert I don’t love this aspect of visibility. So I’ve thought a lot about how to manage this with grace. Here are some strategies I recommend for those who – like me – prefer not to leave the house more often than is absolutely necessary:
- Set clear boundaries and set them early. Let your community know that as a rule you don’t meet one on one for coffee and that you don’t do speaking gigs or mentoring for free. If you’re not comfortable with setting such a clear boundary then you’ll need to be prepared to make an assessment in every new situation and have the potentially uncomfortable conversation each and every time. And if you’re an extrovert and meeting people is something you love to do, then obviously you should ignore this advice. Meeting for coffee is probably going to be a significant part of your visibility strategy and a very valuable use of your time.
- Direct people to places they can meet you – not in an endless parade of one to one catch ups but in a collective space. For example, you might host a monthly meet up in your local area. If that’s the case, you can create a standard email response that you send to all coffee invites which says something like, ‘Thanks for your lovely invitation. Unfortunately the larger my community grows, the less time I have to meet up with everyone individually. That’s why I host a monthly meet up at…. I’d love to see you there. Our next meeting is on…..’
- Remember that you’re running a business and give people the opportunity to pay for intimate access to you. Perhaps that’s a VIP day or a retreat or a membership experience where people get weekly or monthly access to you to ask questions and receive your feedback. Because the request for a catch up often comes in the form of a request to pick your brain, you can simply respond with, ‘All of my one to one time is currently allocated to my students/clients. If you’re interested in receiving this kind of support, I’d love you to join us here.’ If they get offended by that, remember it was them that expected you to give up your time for free and move on.
Other people’s opinions
At around this level of visibility, people also start expressing opinions about you as though they know you. It’s best to have a good wellbeing support structure in place so if you do come across nasty comments about you, you can clear out any wounding quickly and efficiently. It’s also useful to have a VA managing your inbox so when people are mean or just plain rude and sending you messages IN ALL CAPS, your VA can deal with that in haste without you even being aware of it.
When people are behaving in an unfriendly or disrespectful manner, it’s also important to remember that your job isn’t to deal with their stuff, it’s to deal with yours. So if their comments or behaviour triggers you, be sure to take some time to clear that. And then just keep on doing your thing, knowing that it’s inevitable that the more visible you become the more people will project their stuff onto you; good and bad.
The other tools you have to ward off gossips and critics are consistency, integrity, and sticking to platforms where you control the message. The minute you’re on someone else’s platform – like traditional media outlets for example – they control how you’re being portrayed.
So if your visibility fears revolve more around brand control than physical safety, choose your platforms wisely and always keep your awareness of why you’re showing up and for whom at the forefront of your mind.
Becoming public property
At a certain point along your visibility journey, people start treating your social media posts as public property. They start having conversations amongst themselves which have nothing to do with you.
This is a sign that your community is flourishing and vibrantly engaged so be sure to celebrate! When it veers into dangerous territory is when these vibrant conversations garner you a good bit of organic traffic (yay!) and new people flood your social page. Again, yay! Your social media strategy is working.
If the conversation is about something controversial, that organic traffic that comes your way can sometimes include haters and/or trolls.
Let’s begin by clarifying the difference between the two.
On the whole haters are angry and looking for a place to vent. They’re not going to harm you in any way. At least not physically. They might harm you emotionally.
In that case you can choose to acknowledge them and you might even take the time to move them from hater to ally – if you have the time, desire and/or patience – or you can just delete their post and move on.
I generally delete and move on because I really think my time is better spent supporting those who want to be there, than by convincing someone else of the legitimacy of my perspective.
You can tell pretty quickly if a person is showing up on a social post to push their own agenda or if they’re there to engage in conversation. If it’s the latter, then I welcome the disagreements and conversations. That’s what socials are for. To have a conversation with people in your community. If they’re just there to use your platform to push their agenda, it’s perfectly fine to block and delete.
It’s your page, you set the rules.
It’s important to remember that your job is not just to protect yourself, it’s to hold space for your community as a whole. If the space is constantly in upheaval because you don’t know how to manage haters, then it ceases to be a safe space for them.
If you’re attracting trolls rather than haters, that’s a different ball game.
Trolls work in syndicates and sometimes they become obsessed with specific individuals. Real world harm has come to people who’ve been trolled.
Here are a few things to keep in mind about trolls.
If you’re a white woman teaching other women about yoga or nutrition or pilates or running a business from home or building better financial habits, you’re probably not going to get trolled. I say ‘probably’ because there are always exceptions to the rule. But on the whole, you’re not a troll’s target market. In those circumstances, choosing to stay small because you’re terrified of trolls is probably more about self sabotage than it is about what’s really going on in the online world.
If you’re a woman of colour, if you’re a woman with a disability, if you’re writing about feminism or racism, if you’re Jewish or Muslim, if you’re a prominent member of the LGBTIA community, or if you’re an activist, I’m probably not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say, you might come under attack. I don’t say that to scare you but to arm you. To help you in educating yourself so if need be, you’re ready to shift the power they would otherwise seek to take from you and choose instead to take it from them.
As a general rule trolls are young, white, English speaking males who spend a lot of time online and are deeply entrenched in a xenophobic mindset. They’ve likely never taken the time to look at their own privilege and as a consequence, they’re suffering from an extreme case of white, male, heteronormative, ableist fragility.
When dealing with such people, I believe the best thing to do is to shut things down as quickly as possible. My personal view is that there is no point in engaging with a troll. You’ve too many other important things to do in the world and they’re trying to take your time or your sense of security from you. Don’t give it to them.
Trolls are sending out inflammatory messages all the time, all over the internet. Their intention is to get people to respond. The moment you do, they win. So block and delete is my preferred response to being trolled and it’s the one I use in my own business.
The other response I’ve seen work is to out the troll by publicly naming and shaming them. Australian feminist Clementine Ford does this to good effect on her IG account. Also, my friend Ginger Gorman who wrote the book, ‘Troll Hunting’ used the awful things trolls would write to her as promotional material for her book tour for example. (Incidentally she also became friends with one of the trolls she writes about in her book so let that be a glimmer of light in an otherwise murky part of the online world.)
The other thing to remember about trolls is; the stronger your community is, the more they’ll protect you. If you’ve built up a really loyal following of people who love your work and feel attached to you in a healthy and respectful way (i.e. not in a stalkerish kind of way), then when the trolls arrive, they will come to your defence. Then it will be up to you to decide whether or not it’s in your community’s best interests to keep fighting the trolls or whether to just shut them down.
The police and e-safety agencies
For most people working in the online space, that’s as far as things will ever escalate.
If however you find that verbal attacks in the online world start to spill over into your home life, you need to speak to your local police station and be vigilant because my police departments are still grappling with how to deal with online bullying that’s turned particularly nasty eg; rape and death threats, or threats to your family or pets.
So, be persistent. You should also seek the support of any government agencies working on this kind of thing. We have an e-Safety Commissioner in Australia for example. Google ‘e-safety’ or ‘cyber bullying’ to locate the equivalent government agency in your country and then check their website and/or call them for support where necessary.
(By the by, if your visibility experience comes to this, this is also the point at which you’ll be really pleased that you decided early in your business career not to publish photos of your kids or to share the location of your home in public spaces.)
This is also where you’ll want to make sure you have a good network of peers who understand what you’re going through. (Although that’s also extremely useful at all stages of business.) Business buddies who are at a similar stage in their business in terms of the visibility issues they’re facing is soooo helpful (our SOV students for example, provide each other with enormous support and encouragement around their visibility challenges and adventures).
So they’re some of the big considerations when it comes to building an online business and expanding your reach and influence. As you move towards Tim Ferriss’ level of fame and beyond, other safety issues such as stalkers, and/or threats to family and property might arise. At that point I strongly suggest bringing in a professional to:
- help you manage your physical environment and ensure your safety there,
- ensure that all of your private and personal information is protected and not susceptible to hacking (although you probably want to tend to that way before you reach that level of visibility), and
- conduct a safety audit of your business and life and take appropriate steps to put the necessary protective barriers around you.
Before we draw this to a close, here are a couple of other things to remember;
The coaching industry
The coaching industry leaves you with the impression that in order to build a successful business, you personally have to be highly visible. Perhaps this is true of the coaching industry but it’s certainly not true of business generally.
Yes, your work and/or your brand has to be highly visible, but whether you need to be personally visible is another thing altogether. This is an important thing to keep in mind when deciding whether you want to build a personal or business brand.
Another thing to be aware of is that even in the coaching space, we’re moving away from the one teacher model toward the era of collective wisdom. That means that the more you collaborate and feature other people in your work and create spaces for shared wisdom to be conveyed, the more you’re going to succeed over the next decade and beyond. Sharing the spotlight has multiple benefits, including this; it spreads the visibility load.
It’s critically important for all business owners to decide; why do I really want to be visible? Is it to influence others, or change the world in some way, or is to feed my ego? Is it all of those things? If it’s genuinely about influence and not about recognition, there are many many ways to be enormously influential without being famous.
Once you’ve made that decision you can become very purposeful about your visibility efforts. The more purposeful you are in your messaging and branding, the more specific the attention will be that you receive. If you just want fame for fame’s sake, you’ll find yourself attracting all sorts of crazy and unwanted attention. But if you’re deliberate in your efforts and you’re speaking to a very specific set of people, that’s what you’ll see reflected back to you.
What needs cleaning up energetically?
The energetic side of staying safe as you grow your visibility is just as important as the practical side. The two must go hand in hand.
The more visible you become, the more you magnify every aspect of your life. Therefore, it’s imperative that you keep clearing out the things that aren’t serving you. Otherwise small annoyances become huge problems. Like that issue you’ve had with people taking you for granted for example. When you’ve got 500 people in your community that’s a manageable problem. When you have 10,000 or 100,000 people in your community, and you haven’t cleared that out, you have a completely overwhelming problem on your hands.
That’s precisely why we’ve included so much block clearing work in the SOV curriculum. So that you don’t end up as Tim Ferriss did; internet famous and totally unprepared emotionally, energetically, or practically.