Journalists: Brand yourself before somebody else does

My old colleague Gene Weingarten is typically witty in Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine. In his column, he unloads on one of the more obnoxious forms of marketing-speak to invade the newsroom: “branding.” He leads off by recounting the question he got from an aspiring journalism student about how he’d built his “personal brand” and offers one possible answer to that query:

The best way to build a brand is to take a three-foot length of malleable iron and get one end red-hot. Then, apply it vigorously to the buttocks of the instructor who gave you this question. You want a nice, meaty sizzle.

And then he goes to town, denouncing the accelerating replacement of such traditional journalistic values as telling people what they need to know with the cheap pursuit of clicks on the Web by posting “happy, glitzy, ditzy stuff”–er, “content.” Gene declares that “We are slowly redefining our craft so it is no longer a calling but a commodity” and then returns to the original question:

Now, the first goal seems to be self-promotion — the fame part, the “brand.” That’s because we know that, in this frenetic fight for eyeballs at all costs, the attribute that is most rewarded is screeching ubiquity, not talent. It is why Snooki — who is quite possibly literally a moron — has a best-selling book. It is why the media superstars of today are no longer people such as Bob Woodward, who break big stories, but people like Bill O’Reilly, who yell about them.

(I would note that Bob Woodward is no slouch in the branding department, but that point has already been made.)

Read the whole column, and I hope you’ll agree that Gene makes some valid points about the state of journalism. And yet… I have to ask journalists reading this if they assume they’ll never work for any other news organization.

Back in the day, you could leave branding up to your paper, magazine or channel. They opened doors for you and persuaded hostile PR types to return your calls; having their name on your business card took care of much of your marketing work. Besides, it wasn’t like you could do a lot on your own, aside from the occasional TV spot and the sort of personal networking that yields “drinks with source” expense reports.

Now, however, you can be your own PR shop. And you should.

Twitter can be your public notebook, starting the conversation about a story before you even write it; a public Facebook page can serve as your personal billboard, pointing readers to your work and inviting them to talk back; Flickr gives you room for the photos that didn’t make your stories; LinkedIn lets readers see how you you got to your current job; an offsite blog provides a channel for shop talk about your work.

And if your position should vanish after many years, you get to keep those outlets and try to make them work for you. (Pro tip: Don’t pick a username that tie you to a particular employer.) As one example, LinkedIn has resulted in multiple job queries and one freelance assignment since I announced my departure from the Post.

Don’t let personal marketing get in the way of doing work that merits recognition–with rare exceptions, you can’t get famous on the Internet just for having a recognized name. But if you assume that your employer will take care of marketing you, you’re being an idiot.

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17 thoughts on “Journalists: Brand yourself before somebody else does

  1. Right on. And with highly variable quality in newsrooms, more sophisticated readers are paying attention to bylines and will follow the talented as they move from publication to publication. (Or realize that print is not be all/end all and leave altogether.)

    The old bargain is gone. It used to be if you made it to a destination paper like the Post, you could stay there. Now they’re happy to take a veteran and replace with someone making 1/3 the salary who can’t do nearly the level of analysis.

  2. That’s the way it is in many companies, even in municipal employment….get rid of the senior (aka”high pay”) and replace with two or three folks. Many times the experience and leadership is what walks out the door.

  3. Good post, Rob…..I have been out of the USA for 20 years, working on newspapers in Japan and Taiwan, and very out fo the loop here, but i hear this BRANDING term on CNN all the time and what BS!…….a brand has a bramd, that’s all…this entire me me me generation thing CREATE YOUR OWN BRAND FOR YOU, from Paris Hilton to Bob Woordward, pure BS….people do not have brands, products are brands and brands have branding and PR people, but PEOPLE are not brands and we must kill this term ASAP….GEne W was so right…..danny bloom, former WASHPOST cartoonist editorial page 1975….

    • Hello,
      I liked your comments.it sound great! Ochan Amos are my real names but most people called me with my nick name.(Amos Freeboy ),I’m 23 years old of age.i live in Kampala Uganda and am practicing journalism.

      I wanna work with fame and am making great connection with celebrities in Uganda and meeting all people from all walks of life here in Kampala.

      I need someone who i can walk with and can help me in journalism career.
      I was wondering if you can be of a good help.anyone out there? reach me
      below contacts.

      Amos freeboy
      tel:+256788416885
      email:ochanamos@gmail.com.

  4. Like it or not; people can be brands. It’s actually not such a bad thing really though. Think about it… The reality is that we all share interests and group ourselves in with others of those same interests, following one another on Facebook and Twitter and other social media areas like this one with you now. I don’t think of people branding as a bad thing at all, although we may disagree with the way people brand themselves, we generally follow our own interests anyway. That’s typical in our life, to find people we like to gather with, and talk about our similar interests together.

  5. zack, re Zack Glasser on June 29, 2011 at 3:27 am said:
    ”Like it or not; people can be brands.”

    NO NO NO,,,,people cannot be brands…this is a perversion of culture and civilization….people are people. PERIOD
    we are not brands and this whole empowerment ME ME ME self-branding entitled BS is just that, BS….. this iis such
    nonsense….people are not brands….even famous people are not brands…but this marketing strategy for businss moved over to the online ME ME ME crowd and now people think WE can be brands….we are not brands, Zack. You are not brand….. stop talking nonsense. just be a mensch. got it?

    • I don’t think that’s a realistic attitude to hold in the age of the internet and of social media. The term ‘branding’ may have corporate connotations which emphasize the commoditization of people’s personas and reputations, but the fact remains that when our names and reputations are but a Google search away, no one can really afford to leave their personal reputations in hands of others: we have to take proactive steps to ensure that when employers (for example) Google our names, they don’t come up with anything that would make them not want to hire us. That’s just one example of what personal branding means. It’s about controlling our image, our names, our reputations in the on-line, public sphere of the internet.

      Even one comment on one blog post can speak volumes about a person: it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce whether someone is callous and thoughtless or kind and considerate by what one says on the internet, or how one says it. If a post is full of spelling and grammatical errors and is incoherent, like it or not, people who read the post make pat judgements about the kind of person who wrote the post. Likewise, what one says on Twitter (as Ashton Kutcher discovered to his dismay) can create a huge firestorm of controversy, even if the intent behind it might have been innocent at best and simply not phrased right, and so it’s important that people make an effort to comport themselves on the internet as one might do if one were out in real life, speaking publicly, because that is in essence what they are doing every time they post something on Facebook, or tweet, or comment on a blog or website.

      No matter how decent a person, or how well-spoken and urbane, if they don’t make the effort to control what is associated with their (brand) name on the internet, they run the risk of having their online (and subsequently their real life) reputations tarnished as a result.

      Whether that should matter much in journalism is a different story, although I would argue that journalism that is not read by anyone isn’t really very useful, no matter how good the integrity of the journalist or how well-written their piece, and especially in the now precarious world of print journalism, journalists are basically being left to fend for themselves in terms of promoting their own work and thus, the need for personal branding. A decent journalist _might_ be able to garner sufficient Twitter followers, blog readers, Facebook fans, etc. solely through word of mouth of the quality of their work by reputation alone, but it’s an uphill battle in a world increasingly stuffed full of self-styled news bloggers marketing themselves so that they might be heard. There are only so many people whose Twitter feed people are going to want to read on a given day, it’s not like there is an infinite amount of tweets that people have time or inclination to read, so they’re going to start getting picky about who they follow.

      A journalist who wants to earn a living and keep feeding their families needs to be able to generate the kind of following that social media can provide: at the very least, having that sort of following is exactly the kind of cachet needed for a journalist to be able to snag a job at a newspaper (where they care about whether a journalist has or will have the kind of following that will mean more people who might read (and buy) their newspaper and not some other, not to mention it mattering to the advertisers who largely financially support those papers). At best, having that sort of constant and loyal following means that your journalism work isn’t in vain, you’re not just some schmuck with a blog writing to a nonexistent audience where you’re only getting 10 hits on your page in a month, and 5 of those were you checking your own blog from your phone. It means having the same kind of following that Pulitzer-prize winning print journalists had in the past, or Emmy award-winning news reporters, of being heard, of getting the kind of recognition for your hard work which is as important to career satisfaction as getting paid. Otherwise, you might as well go do something else which is less stressful and might pay better.

      That’s all personal branding really is, and I don’t really see it as being this terrible or perverse thing that you seem to.

      • @Krantzstone, re “I don’t think that’s a realistic attitude to hold in the age of the internet and of social media. The term ‘branding’ may have corporate connotations which emphasize the commoditization of people’s personas and reputations, but the fact remains that when our names and reputations are but a Google search away, no one can really afford to leave their personal reputations in hands of others: we have to take proactive steps to ensure that when employers (for example) Google our names, they don’t come up with anything that would make them not want to hire us. That’s just one example of what personal branding means. It’s about controlling our image, our names, our reputations in the on-line, public sphere of the internet.”

        I agree with you, and thanks for clarification. But then, i must ask since BRANDING ”may have corporate connotations which emphasize the commoditization of people’s personas and reputations”, and since as you say ”That’s just one example of what personal branding means.’ and also that ” It’s about controlling our image, our names, our reputations in the on-line, public sphere of the internet.”…then i still must insist, INSIST, from my wireless cave here in Taiwan that we get rid of the corporatey words BRAND / BRANDING / PERSONAL BRANDING…and let’s come up with a more accurate and less corporatey word for what this is all about. What word or term could it be? Let’s put our heads together and come up with a better word for this very spazzy “personal branding” non-word! it is NOT branding, people are NOT brands, products are, and people are NOT products. So what word or words would fit better? Sugggestions. Let’s start a national conversation on this here and via blogs and Quora and Facebook. I sa

      • I like POT, personal operating tag…..P.O.T…….instead of personal branding…let’s stay away from corporate speak when it comes to our ID and personality. we are PEOPLE, not PRODUCTS, people NOT brands! I insist!

      • I know what KrantzStone is going to tell me he is going to tell me:

        “Personal branding” is as good a name as any, in the marketing sense anyway. In the increasingly pervasive social media realm thee ate inevitably going to be more people wanting or at least hoping to be the next Justin Bieber, and inevitably those who work harder on their personal branding are more likely to be successful. Say what you like about the Kim Kardashians and Paris Hiltons of the world, but ypu have to give them some credit for their marketing savvy and ability to ttansform an invasion of privacy, namely a leaked sex tape, and turn it into a lucrative reality tv empire based almost entirely on personal branding. I may not think it exactly classy, but I give them props for taking the lemons handed them and selling it to a lot of people as lemonade. Although then again, they did have help, since they weren’t complete unknowns when they started, and it is possible they leaked the tapes themselves for a shot at instant fame, but if all it took to become rich and famous was to tape hardcore sex and release it on the internet, every amateur porn star should be a celebutante by now…but they aren’t. And I believe personal branding had something to do with the success of Hilton and Kardashian.

  6. Look, Zack, reread your words again above: it’s goobledeegook. You been brainwashed. Look, we can have friends, hobbies, interests and we do, and we can use Twit and FB and email and we do, but let’s not forget we are human beings and NOT products, and we do not need business models to put ourselves out there…..Paris Hilton, I blame her and her ilk for this…..and reality TV and that BS….too…….Zack, you do not have to brand yourself to be a happy camper…..just be a mensch……what’;s next, people are going to go out and create their own LOGO and put their LOGO on their emails and FB pages and Trweets. O god, i see it coming….. it’s getting weirder and weirder and more removed from mensch-hood. Just be human, stop with this branding nonsense…..IBM is brand . Paris Hilton is not a brand. she a spoiled rich kids. get over it…

  7. I love the Twitter=public notebook, Facebook=personal billboard, Flickr, etc, LinkedIn, etc. metaphor. If that is branding, so be it. to me, it’s just how people communicate electronically these days. Tomorrow it will be different. Doesn’t replace other forms of communication, although it may make them less efficient. I try not to read too metaphysical a meaning into it.

  8. Rob,

    Just caught your appearance on “101 Gadgets That Changed The World” on the History Channel last night. Great job! Looking forward to your continuing tech advice!

    Dan

  9. Pingback: Gene Weingarten has a powerful personal brand « The Buttry Diary

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