We’ve discussed how to know whether or not you are a credible source, how to determine who is a credible source, and how to write about a passion or a hobby even when you’re not an expert. But all these topics assume you are not an expert on the topics discussed in your blog. But…some of us are.
Some of us are registered dietitians, nutritionists, life coaches, certified personal trainers, medical doctors, and mental health professionals. So, how do those of us who are experts blog responsibly?
The first step is to make a choice: do you want your readers to know you are a professional in your field? I have made the choice to let them know. I am in the mental health profession but, when I started my blog, I knew that I did not want my professional and online lives to collide in any way. I didn’t want the responsibility associated with being considered an expert, nor the judgment that could come with my honesty regarding my own yet-unresolved emotional struggles.
If you choose to not disclose your professional identity, consider how else your readers could learn of it and then begin (perhaps without your knowledge) to ascribe expertise to your words that you do not intend. The internet is an open book and anyone can Google anyone. If my full name is Googled, Web sites from former and current jobs list my title, and publications indicate areas in which I have expertise. Similarly, the last thing I want is for those I serve in my career to find my blog. As a professional, the information I share on my blog would cross an important boundary with my colleagues — a boundary that I only want crossed with my knowledge and consent. Therefore, I have made the decision to not share my full name on my blog. I have a separate blog e-mail address and I go by a nickname that my friends, but not my colleague and clients, call me.
Say Yes to Confess
However, many of us choose to share with our readers our professional identities and therefore our posts are imbued with more credibility than the average Jane Doe who blogs (although we have discussed how others may perceive her to be more credible than she realizes). Nutritionists and dietitians are presumed to know all about diet and food choices. Personal trainers may be perceived as all-knowing about getting or staying in shape or reaching that fitness goal. Medical doctors can be viewed as the authority on illness, health, and diagnosis. And life coach and mental health practitioners may be considered the experts on overcoming obstacles and achieving personal goals. When you are assumed to have this knowledge, what can you do to protect your readers and yourself?
1. First do no harm. Know the ethical guidelines and principles of your profession. What is your responsibility to those you work with? What does someone need to do to be considered under your care? Does blogging (i.e. putting information out there) alone constitute providing a service to someone? If so, please be aware of what you need to do to protect yourself. If someone is injured, or becomes ill or hurts herself or someone else intentionally based on something you did or did not write, can you be held accountable? What if you are made aware of a reader struggling with any of those concerns listed, what is your responsibility? Familiarize yourself with any code or laws associated with your profession and online interactions. If you have an insurance policy in case of a lawsuit (e.g. malpractice insurance), does it extend to protect what you are providing in your blog?
2. I’m no super(wo)man. Recognize your limitations. The internet is a great and powerful tool that can be used for good or evil. We can provide a powerful resource for those who are ambivalent about seeking information in person, lack the resources to do, or who feel shame about doing so. However, we are limited regarding the specificity with which we can provide advice or guidance to our readers. A dietitian might be able to provide broad examples of healthful food choices but these may not apply without modification to someone who is diabetic. More than other bloggers, experts need to provide disclaimers about the limitations of the information they are providing as not constituting diagnosis or treatment and some guidelines about when to consult a professional in person regarding specific needs. Information on how to locate a reputable professional would also be beneficial for readers
3. Ain’t none of your business. We have discussed how to blog about your job, but there may be additional considerations if you are a professional in a related field. What are your responsibilities to maintain the confidentiality of those with whom you work? Those in the medical and mental health professions are subject to strict federal laws regarding client privacy. I have seen errors of the magnitude of a doctor tweeting a picture of a group of kids he was working with. Yikes! However, in general, as long as one does not reveal any identifying information, she is not breaking the law. But let’s assume that we’re not going to blog or tweet identifying information. Let’s assume we don’t blog about a client by name with a specific problem…but just about an unnamed client with a specific problem we describe in detail. How will that client feel if she Googles you and finds her story — even without a name attached — posted for all to read? Whenever possible, don’t make reference to specific clients and write in generalizations such as “some people struggle with…” And also be wary of complaining about work. Sure, it might be stressful and there are rough days. On a certain level we realize that this happens in every profession. However, when it comes to your clients finding your blog, they should not have to think about you having a stressful day because they might assume (correctly or incorrectly) that they contributed to it.
Those who are professionals and who choose to share their knowledge via blogs are a great resource. It can be difficult as a professional to decide how to share information both about the profession you are representing and about yourself, knowing that readers are looking to you as more of an expert than the average blogger. It can also be daunting to recognize that those you work with in person are sometimes going to come across your blog and be privy to the information you post. The most important thing is to be thoughtful in your decisions about what you post and what you omit, and to take the responsibility of your profession seriously.