Social media has gradually evolved, changing alongside shifting norms.

“Fifteen years ago, politics and religion weren’t talked about online,” said Brian Colling, CEO of Colling Media. “However, what was once inappropriate isn’t now. Today, it’s good to speak your mind—just don’t lose the power of common sense.”

Misusing social media can have far-reaching ramifications, from not getting the job you want to harming a relationship with a client. But what does social media misuse look like for an individual and their personal account?

One example is being derogatory. “It’s a slippery slope,” said Colling. “You can offend people and create backlash. Instead, be relevant and caring, and avoid sensitive topics.”

A good way to monitor interactions is to pretend you’re talking to people in real life.

As Colling explains, “Pretend you’re at lunch with these people. No one would be yelling in public, but social media is public and people forget that. Be ready to own what you’re putting out there.”

Katharine Longo, Social Media Manager of the James Agency, offers another definition.

“Social media misuse is not understanding your audience. It’s communicating in a way that’s disingenuous and not true to you or your brand.”

People excel at detecting misleading representations—and often react badly to them.

“When you’re not genuine or transparent, you may see engagement drop,” warns Longo. “People might unfollow you. That can have a negative impact on sales or the brand in general.”

Understanding your voice and audience will help you curate your content to maximize engagement and minimize blowback.

Humor is a good example. Individuals and companies alike often flounder when adding humor to their messages, but as Longo explains, audience awareness is the key to avoiding this.

“You have to know who you’re talking to and if they’re ok with that. If you’re an edgy brand, you can have fun with it. But if not, you probably shouldn’t be using swear words.”

However, the bigger question is whether social media differs greatly between companies and individuals.

Jennifer Adler, Director of Public Relations at the James Agency, would say yes.

“When we take on a social media client, we put together a plan outlining the tone and voice that are in line with that company’s brand. If it’s a corporate account, there may be a lot of red tape we need to be conscious of, as well as very specific brand guidelines.”

Furthermore, while strategies for a personal or business account may overlap, Longo notes clear differences.

“Both focus on the community, knowing your audience, and being consistent with your voice. But businesses never know when they’ll get a negative review or bad comment and how to handle it. Personal accounts don’t require as much thought, because you just react as you normally would. But businesses need to think ten steps down the line and keep the company’s best interests in mind.”

When dealing with social media, it’s key to remember you are posting in a public forum with little protection or privacy rights, says Attorney Marc Lamber, legal analyst with Lamber Goodnow.

“If you post information online without protection, then potentially the whole world can see it. There can be no expectation of absolute privacy.”

Lamber adds, “Some states offer protection for certain kinds of photographs and information being posted online and/or taken without consent. It might be beneficial to understand those laws and how they affect you.”

However, in general, Lamber cautions that you should be extremely careful with what you post.

“If you share information with an ordinary third party—not a physician, counselor, lawyer, etc.—then the information is not protected and can be shared with the world. Once something is out in the “wild” (i.e., not in your direct control), your expectation of privacy should be zero.”

What can someone do to prevent their personal social media from being used against them? One option is periodic cleaning.

“Every two years, I go back and check everything,” said Colling. “At one point, I looked at pictures of a cruise from years ago, and they didn’t seem relevant anymore. It was a great memory for me, but it didn’t represent me today.”

And even if other people are doing the posting, there are still ways to protect yourself.

“Say you’re tagged in an unflattering Facebook picture. You can untag yourself and request it be removed,” said Colling.

However, as Lamber explains, “Generally, once something is out it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get it taken down or removed. Protect your accounts and your information now to minimize your risk.”

This advice was echoed by Longo. “It’s better to be proactive than reactive. We always audit our client’s social media and we recommend people audit their personal or professional accounts at least on a yearly basis.”

According to Colling, businesses should do the same. “Companies should google themselves to see what the world thinks of them. Look at it as an outsider and adjust accordingly.”

Consistently checking your social media over time will ensure people are getting the best impression of you.

“People pride themselves on keeping it real,” said Colling, “but think about how you represent yourself.

But what do you do if something you post on social media becomes problematic?

Colling suggested PR crisis mode: “Acknowledge, apologize, learn, and move on.”

“We live in a forgiving society, but people like accountability. Step one is minimizing that stuff getting out there in the first place, but once it’s uncontrollable, address it and move forward. Denying and backtracking leads to piranhas, but society loves a comeback story.”

“Speed is the most important thing,” added Longo, but it’s important to be careful. “You want to act fact, but you have to be smart about it. Don’t just react—have a process behind it.”

As Colling points out, crises can be good for an individual or company’s reputation if handled well. “People can learn from it and get loyal supporters.”

On the flip side, mishandling a crisis can make it even worse.

“When a crisis happens, handling it poorly can be a crisis in itself,” said Adler. “Some businesses have turned themselves completely around and ended up in a more favorable light, but some handed it badly and had damaging, long-lasting consequences for their brand.”

“Lashing out at your audience is the biggest problem,” said Colling. “Complaining about being a victim of a situation you created shows entitlement. Just own it.”

Similarly, Longo cautioned companies not to get too involved. “We’ve seen clients take things personally and become defensive. Instead, you should actively listen to your community and respond in a genuine manner. People don’t believe fake apologies.”

Regardless of the risks, Longo says ignoring social media is never an option.

“You can’t hide from it because it’s out there and people are acknowledging it. Some people won’t believe you no matter what, but as long as you’re honest and clear, that’s what matters in the end.”

Colling offered this advice: “If you’re 30% wrong and 70% right, focus on the wrong and the audience will forgive you.”

It’s vital to manage your digital presence, Lamber explains, because what you post lives online forever and can have legal ramifications.

“In the legal industry, there may be no greater source of fodder than what people leak on the Internet. It is not unusual for this type of information to be case deciding. Use caution in what you post as it may not be always be in your direct control.”

So how do people avoid these problems?

The first line of defense is to prevent leaks or hacks from compromising your private information.

“We definitely do not take online privacy seriously enough,” said Lamber. “Or perhaps we don’t take it seriously until our privacy is breached (and time and money is lost), and then we get serious about it.”

He highlighted important tips for devices and accounts, both personal and professional.

“Use strong passwords and two-step verification wherever possible. Make your password recovery questions hard and don’t use answers that someone could guess from knowing you (your favorite color, your pet’s name). I would venture that it’s almost impossible to stay completely invisible, but consumers can take some easy steps (like privacy mode) to stay as anonymous as they wish.”

What about managing the social media you’re already putting out there? One way to minimize mishaps is to have clear content guidelines for yourself or your company.

“Define it within the organization,” said Colling. “Align with company values and know what topics to avoid.”

Lamber added that it’s good to know how your company feels about social media.

“Avoid mixing your personal social media with your professional one. Educate yourself on the culture of your organization. If you’re working for a company where social media and selfies are embraced, then you’re probably fine to engage in kind. Otherwise, keep your personal life and professional one separate.”

Longo explains how the James Agency helps clients tailor their social media—including making imaginary audience profiles.

“We create target personas that match the audience we’re aiming for. We give them names, characteristics, ages, what their life’s like, what technology they use, how they interact with their friends and family. We try to make them a person so it’s easier to see who we’re talking to.”

In general, it’s never a good idea to start posting without a strategy in place.

“A lot of new companies make that mistake,” said Adler. “But we always make sure to put strategy first. Besides our social media plan, we also do content calendars so no one’s posting on the fly. We can still adapt to spur of the moment things, but there’s an overall strategy for content.”

And of course, this strategy relies on the company or individual’s own image. Your brand or personality is the foundation of your work, so start there.

“Define your audience and know your tone,” explains Longo. “Are you informative? Casual? Can you have fun with it or be edgy? Do you need to be a resource? You can’t produce content if you don’t know who you’re talking to. It’s like throwing spaghetti on a wall and seeing what sticks.”

Engagement is also an important factor to consider.

“Knowing your community and fostering it is important. It’s why people love social media and why it has such a big impact on brands. It takes down that corporate barrier and makes a company personable, letting you relate to it better. The more you can engage, comment, reply, the more you grow your community and make it a place people want to be a part of, the better off you’ll be.”

As Adler put it, “Social media is a two-way street. Don’t just push content out—participate in conversations and be a resource to people.”

Analytics can also be a valuable source of information when trying to understand how to engage your audience. While businesses may have more data on hand, personal accounts can benefit from tracking basic stats as well.

“Analytics will tell you what works and what doesn’t,” said Adler. “If something is underperforming, we’ll change the type of content or adjust our ad targeting. We want our content to perform to the best of its ability.”

To that end, Colling encouraged people to “show gratitude and bring others up with you, giving shout outs to friends, employees, or clients.”

He also warned against being social braggart. For an individual, this might mean not showing off your new car too much, while for a company, Colling recommends putting the people helped by your business in the spotlight.

The most common theme was being genuine. As Colling put it, “Don’t say what you wouldn’t say in person.”

Longo concurred, adding “Never be off brand. Brands and people change over time, but you need to always stay true to yourself.”

In other words, treat social media like real life, because people in your life might see it. One way to achieve this is to take online arguments into the real world, as Longo advises.

“Don’t take things personally. We encourage clients to publicly acknowledge what’s been said so everyone knows they’re responding, but then ask that person to contact them so they can have the rest of that conversation offline.”

Colling’s advice fell along similar lines. “Don’t get in arguments online. Exchanging ideas is great, but debates become name calling and everyone looks like an idiot. The Internet always wins.”