At the start of the pandemic, corporate privacy advocate Cece Xie found herself in an unexpected position when her first TikTok went viral. The video was a meme that compared her relentless pace of work to that of her friends who worked in marketing and who, she recalled, had “many happy hours.” She began to garner a large number of followers, who began asking her questions about her life and work.
TikTok makes influencers out of everyone easily, from lawyers like Xie to people who are just really good at Microsoft Excel. As a privacy advocate and aspiring TikTok influencer, Xie found herself at the new frontier of corporate America, where employees in even the most conservative office jobs can leverage her expertise and a knack for content creation for paid influencer opportunities. Managers are now increasingly having to figure out what social media policies make sense for this class of slash influencers, who largely seem to expect these activities to be allowed.
Xie didn’t just grab her TikTok traction and run with it. Before she started posting heavily, she consulted her company’s social media guidelines and met with one of her social media coordinators. Not surprisingly, the company didn’t want her to post confidential information, but also advised her not to post at certain times of the day that might indicate whether or not she was in a meeting. Xie said, “That’s the part I really appreciated about my law firm – they didn’t want to suppress what the lawyer said as an individual. So it was often, ‘You can say whatever you want, so make it clear that you’re speaking on your own behalf and not on behalf of the company.’”
Her fan base grew so large that sponsorship offers came in too lucrative to simply ignore. “I think I was lucky in that I worked very closely with some partners who felt that there were other things in life you should be doing outside of work,” she said. So they set up a process for Xie to get sponsorships approved. Her influencing is paying off so well that she recently quit her law job to pursue book writing, though she plans to retain Bar Association membership.
Xie acknowledged that not all law firms encourage employees to use social media the way hers does. A majority of American companies are probably appalled at the prospect of having part-time influencers on their payrolls. Take the media, which has had few influencers for a number of years but still doesn’t have an industry standard for managing them, quite unlike the long-accepted standards for freelance work. (Insider recently reported tensions at the New York Times that arose from a committee formed to approve journalists’ outside projects, which led to a weekend-long Twitter debate about the merits of journalists, the “personal Brands” that largely stem from social media; I agree with the site that argued that personal brands are essential for today’s journalists.)
Threatened by employees’ ability to book their own advertising business — which media companies have struggled to grow for at least a decade — some media companies have attempted to limit such employee activity entirely, or slash all their deals, arguing affiliation with the publication enabled them to create a monetizable platform. (I reported on this recently in my newsletter Fashion, for example, takes 40 percent, about double what an influencer agent would take). However, these policies often only result in employees who enjoy their media jobs leaving because the media are poorly paid and at a certain point it doesn’t make financial sense for them to stay and turn down money.
Xie believes that a clear, written, and accessible social media policy should be the foundation of any business. Noting that she spoke about the issue with her background as a privacy advocate, she said: “It’s detrimental to both employer and employee not to formalize policies because you’re basically asking for confusion and deviation from what you actually want .” One policy, she added, prevents “strange fears from its employees.”
A media worker, Slash influencer who had this strange fear only felt comfortable speaking anonymously for this story for fear her employer would shut down her sponsored posts. Your company has communicated to others upon request that sponsorship of personal feeds is not permitted, but has not committed to include this policy in the employee handbook or elsewhere.
“The last [sponsorship] I made more than my paycheck all month,” the clerk said. “I feel like I’m underpaid at my job,” she added, explaining that her only increases since 2019 have been the annual cost of living increase by about 3 percent. If she were told to stop monetizing her social media posts, she would quit, even though she enjoys her job.
But trying to stifle social media use and associated sponsorships will likely only hurt the media industry in the long run, as these policies become increasingly unattractive to creative talent. The undercover influencer said: “We work in the media – don’t they want people who have a voice and influence?”
Bizarrely, many media companies, despite being a progressive industry in many ways, fall behind others that may appear more conservative in sectors like medicine, investment banking, and management consulting — all of which employ slash influencers. Jacob is the consulting slash influencer who co-runs the meme account Consulting Humor, which has nearly 400,000 followers on Instagram. He says he doesn’t advertise his side job, but the partners he works with know he does and have no problem with it as long as he puts his job first.
“Most consulting firms try to make sure you can have a robust life outside of work and try to support people with side hustles and side passions,” said Jacob, who asked not to be identified by his last name or firm in order to make it clear that he was not speaking on behalf of his company. In the consultation, “we don’t sell a product,” he said. “The key to success in our business is keeping people with the company, and that’s the case with any consulting firm. For that reason, I would say consulting firms do a lot to keep people.”
Jacob never felt that his company wanted to unfairly restrict social media use. When he started, he attended social media training that emphasized that employees always represent the company. “All it takes is one rude remark or picture that you didn’t want online,” Jacob said, “and it hurts the business model to have a really good reputation.” (McKinsey’s Code of Conduct states: ” All colleagues are expected to present themselves in a professional manner on social media. Even when using private social media accounts, we expect colleagues to be mindful of the perception that may be generated.”)
That makes restrictive social media policies that drive talent away all the more confusing. If consulting firms and law firms can figure this out, why can’t the media? Unlike Jacob, many consultants don’t use social media as part of their job. But in media, social media aptitude is a required skill that is often acquired through personal use.
Companies that want to prevent people from capitalizing on this ability – in the media and beyond – will likely need to change their policies as Gen Z enters the workforce. Unlike older millennials, Gen Z and young millennials had access to social media as we know it today throughout their adolescence. Xie, the privacy advocate, wouldn’t be happy if she couldn’t monetize her posts, but she said: “If I ever came across a company that said, ‘You can’t have social media,’ I would think that was wild. “
Amy Odell is the author of ANNA: The biographywhich will be published by Gallery Books in May.