Digital Footprints Last

A recent FOX2 news story appeared on my Facebook feed this week, "Michigan mother and son share their transgender transformation," that delivered an honest and straightforward reporting of a New Baltimore, Michigan, family – and possibly the first ever reported parent and child who are both making their transitions.

It was an uplifting story to watch of this beautiful family who owned their truths and courageously opened their lives to the public to help educate others about what it means to be transgender. And then the moment was over. Like that it was gone. I made the choice to click on the hundreds of comments to the story where I was quickly reintroduced to some of the vilest, vicious and ignorant people in this world.

As an educated and openly gay man, I understand that people have a very strong stance on the topics of all things LGBT. I can respect that we have varying cultural backgrounds, values and norms, and, importantly, that our viewpoints may be at odds. But with nearly 20 years in professional communications experience, it's perplexing and yet not surprising to me how nonchalantly people toss vile words and hate speech into the public realm and act like it's no big deal.

"Keyboard warriors," as they as often called, feel empowered to call out people and spread repugnant and vicious judgments without having to look anyone in the eye or have a real discussion about the issue at hand. And while they feel comfortable in their perceived anonymity and lack a fear of retaliation, what many don't realize is that words can come back to haunt them. Especially in this digital day and age.

A digital footprint should be fiercely protected, carefully maintained and consistently monitored. A person's choice of words can speak volumes about the individual and how they present themselves online, and importantly, could greatly impact future goals and aspirations. Many potential employers, colleges and universities are among groups and organizations that actively search candidates online as part of the interview and review process. That off-the-cuff comment posted to social media five years ago as a college sophomore or yesterday as a grown adult could more than likely be a detriment to one's success.

Just ask celebrities like Roseanne Barr, Kathy Griffin and Charlie Sheen if they thought they would damage their careers with a few keyboard clicks and a social media post. In a digital world, anonymity doesn't exist. You may delete a comment that you have second thoughts about within a few minutes after posting, but even then someone could have made a screenshot. Your words never fade away into digital obscurity.

A good rule of thumb is to never share a comment that you wouldn't want to be blasted on the front page of a newspaper or broadcasted as the top story on the evening news. And after perusing the Facebook profiles of those who posted hateful comments to the FOX2 story, I found many, who from first-glance, have "skin in the game" and could potentially lose for their efforts, including owners of small businesses or those who work for large employer groups.

While honest exchanges with opposing viewpoints are encouraged, it's crucial to avoid situations where you come across as spiteful, obnoxious or, even worse, ignorant. This doesn't mean you have to sit back and remain silent on issues about which you are passionate. By all means, share your opinions, but frame them in an informed, educated manner that puts your best "communications" foot forward.

Michael Odom is Vice President of Marx Layne & Company, a Farmington Hills-based, a full-service, marketing, public relations and digital media agency that provides results-focused counseling to a broad spectrum of clients in Michigan and nationwide. Odom has nearly 20 years of professional communications experience and works with a variety of clients and industry sectors.