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.