As a transplanted journalist from Phoenix, Arizona, I’ve been amazed by the opportunities in New York to meet other journalists and participate in discussions about our profession. I’ve stayed out late at Sree Sreenivasan’s Social Media One-Night Stand, had a lovely conversation with the late David Carr at The BBC College of Journalism and New York Times Social Media Summit and heard TIME’s Callie Schweitzer wow the audience at Google for Media: New York. One fantastic event after another, always with all-star talent. At each one, I’ve gained knowledge, caught up with acquaintances and met people I’d followed online for years. And every time, I went to the event alone.
Actively networking is a core element of having a strong personal brand, and it means taking social risks. Some people genuinely enjoy meeting new people at professional events, but many find it awkward and stressful. In my case, networking is vital for finding clients for my social media coaching business, but it also keeps me connected to my journalism colleagues. (I freelance from home as a means to balancing career and family, so I work alone most of the time.) I live just outside the City, and attending evening events gets tricky with family commitments. And although I’m definitely an extrovert, going to events alone still intimidates me. Too often, the difference between my hearing about networking opportunities and actually seizing them comes down to three obstacles: calendar, commute — and courage.
Over the past month, however, I’ve made the decision to feed my extroverted soul and connect with the New York journalism community. I got out of my comfort zone — and my kitchen, where I usually work — and headed into the City.
- Clear the calendar: Volunteer your time and talent. Even though my son’s college-acceptance campus visit and my husband’s 50th birthday celebration conflicted with the Women in the World Summit’s three-day event, I changed my schedule around so I could work with WITW’s audience development manager Niketa Patel. I’d met Niketa at the 2012 Online News Association conference and jumped at the chance to be on what I dubbed #TeamNiketa. She recruited a group of social media professionals with journalism, PR and marketing jobs to help her implement the event’s multi-platform social media plan, and we in turn got exposure to new social media tools (including Snappy TV and the Twitter Mirror.) We also received a behind-the-scenes view of the hard work and tremendous heart that goes into producing this high-quality live event. And as an unexpected bonus, I got to catch up with a former classmate covering the event whom I hadn’t seen since she got married.
- Make the commute: Get together with j-school friends. When I was in graduate school at Arizona State University with the above-mentioned bride, I was 10-20 years older than the other students in my cohort. A few of them moved to the City after graduation. I love that they invite me for drinks or to parties when they get together on the weekends, but often my family’s schedule makes it inconvenient to join them on a weeknight. Inconvenient? Yes. But did I get in my car and drive in to celebrate my friend Justin’s selection for a prestigous fellowship? Absolutely. Seeing these dear friends gives me a chance to talk shop with other journalists, and we always end up discussing our careers options, issues and goals with each other.
- Find the courage: Meet Twitter-life colleagues in real life. With so many quality journalism schools in New York, you can regularly find panel discussions relevant to just about any niche. On one particular day, I saw a tweet inviting the public to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism for a panel on journalists and their social media brands, hosted by its new social journalism master’s degree program director Carrie Brown. I’d met Carrie years ago on Twitter and planned for the past six months to connect with her IRL following her move to the City from the University of Memphis. I had no idea if we’d hit it off, but she recognized me right away and we talked like old friends. By dropping everything and heading down to the event, I met @brizzyc, my fellow Wisconsin sports fan and social media specialist, and got introduced to another high-profile j-school in the process.
For many journalists, attending events and meeting new colleagues is part of their work routine or social life. But for some freelancers, introverts and other people who are simply too busy or intimidated, networking takes tremendous effort. It’s true sometimes you’ll leave wondering whether it was worth your time, but you never know when it will pay off.
Did I mention we volunteers got invited to the Women in the World wrap party? Yep, and as usual, I went to it alone.
In the wake of Brian Williams’ self-imposed hiatus from the NBC Nightly News anchor desk (which his bosses later extended to a six-month suspension without pay), L.A. Times television critic Mary McNamara wrote a column blaming personal branding for Williams’ departure:
On Saturday, “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams announced that he would be temporarily vacating his chair because his personal brand recently came in direct and injurious contact with his professional obligations.
You can imagine my exasperated reaction to her implying that personal branding rather than a lack of journalistic integrity was the source of his demise. LSU journalism professor Steve Buttry’s blog post today tells me I’m not the only one who disagrees with her assessment. Her unwillingness to separate having a personal branding from pursuing celebrity not only distracts the conversation from the larger, more fundamental issue of Williams’ failure to adhere to the first principle of ethical journalism – to seek truth and report it – but also unfairly indicts in toto the act of a journalist communicating his or her professional value. The real issue is not branding but rather those who seek celebrity at the expense of their journalistic ethics and the news organizations that enable it.
I’ve been blogging about personal branding for journalists for five years and have always stressed here, as well as in guest lectures at ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism, that having a brand and having integrity are not mutually exclusive. McNamara claims that Williams couldn’t reconcile the incompatibility of “personal branding” and his “professional obligations.” That’s actually not the case. His personal brand as she defined it, one “anchored in trustworthiness” as an “intrepid journalist, great storyteller and excellent late-night guest,” wasn’t in conflict with his professional obligation to tell the truth. One can be an ethical, truthful, intrepid, trustworthy journalist who also tells great stories on late-night talk shows. Ask Tom Brokaw.
Williams’ problem wasn’t his having a personal brand; it was his having an inauthentic one. The injury McNamara describes as having resulted from Williams’ choice “to bolster the Brian Williams brand” in fact came from his continued decision to betray what was the Brian Williams brand – as well as his professional obligation to be truthful.
So why did he betray his established brand? The emerging narrative suggests it was inevitable because the crafted brand was out of sync with his authentic brand. That’s the part McNamara missed.
As New York Times Media Equation columnist David Carr and network news blogger Andrew Tyndall alluded to on NPR’s Brian Lehrer Show, Williams’ credibility crisis seems to have begun years ago when he and NBC cultivated a brand for Williams as a “war correspondent” and “sober network-news anchor” rather than recognizing his true talent as a charismatic, very skilled live performer. (The entire 31-minute discussion is definitely worth a listen, but the part that specifically addresses personal branding starts around 18:20.)
According to David Carr, Williams himself said, “I’m a creature of live television. That’s where I feel most comfortable. That’s what I’m good at.” He’s even rumored to have thrown his hat in the ring to replace Jay Leno. Williams seems to be telling us his true talent and passion lies with being in front of a live audience rather than with journalism specifically. When Williams wanted Leno’s gig, they should have taken him seriously.
I feel so strongly about the bad rap personal branding is getting because the insecurity of the current journalism job market requires us to articulate and demonstrate our value every day. Defining (not crafting) one’s personal brand is in that sense a survival skill. Blaming branding rather than dishonesty and embellishment in journalism reflects poorly on the whole concept of personal brands when, in fact, it’s just smart career management.
This isn’t about “personality journalism.” Every journalist – every human being – has a personality. But every journalist is not, nor aspires to be, a celebrity. McNamara suggested that having a personality and revealing it in a journalistic personal brand by definition involves falsehoods, exaggeration and self-aggrandizement. In fact, when done effectively, it’s the complete opposite. Personal branding is about authentically communicating your unique value as a journalist among your professional-category peers and backing up that brand with quality work to build credibility and trust among your audience and colleagues. That is the opposite of what Williams has done.
Frankly, I thought this argument had largely been settled. I find it tiresome that once again we have in McNamara a journalist who, similar to Gene Weingarten, has cultivated a strong personal brand with the blessings of her publication but nonetheless feels the need to decry branding’s corrupting effects. (Following his widely challenged rant against personal branding, Gene Weingarten went as far as to single out my post defending branding for journalists, calling it “very troubling.” He did so on his monthly chat, a lovely vehicle for him to support his personal brand.)
It’s time to acknowledge we all need strong brands to survive in this business, and then get back to focusing on the stories.
For the past few years, Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication professor Tim McGuire has had me speak to his 21st Century Journalism class about developing their personal brands. I love meeting each new graduate cohort and the Barrett Honors College students, and, in general, the students really seem to take my advice to heart.
From time to time, however, a student or two have questioned the value of putting in extra time and energy to manage portfolios, personal blogs and the countless social media profiles recommended for journalists. Each time, Tim has mentioned my blogging experience and other students’ social media use as examples of extracurricular online efforts that have helped launch careers. But when I spoke to his class last month, I had a fresh example of how that strategy had paid off for yet another Cronkite alum. I got to tell Tim’s class a fantastic story about Chierstin Susel, one of his former students who just got hired to do her dream job – without applying for it.
Without even knowing such a job existed.
In a phone conversation from her parents’ home in Ohio, Chierstin told me how her deliberate decision to create an online presence paid off. Her story is a great lesson in being authentic and strategic.
Chierstin graduated in May and returned home to search for a sports reporting position in Ohio. A few months into her job search, she received an out-of-the-blue email from a hiring manager who found her sports reel on YouTube and suggested she apply for a job opening with his news organization. When he followed up the next day to discuss the opportunity, Chierstin said, she asked a pointed question.
“I said, ‘Hey, I just gotta ask you, how did you find me online?” His reply was as surprising as his initial call, according to Chierstin.
“He said, ‘Well, I was looking at someone’s reel that had applied, and I’ve never really done this before, but I randomly decided that I was going to search the videos that popped up on the side on YouTube,'” Chierstin said. He looked at several and was one click away from clicking on a Jimmy Kimmel video when he decided to look at one more reel.
“So he clicked on my reel,” Chierstin said, adding he knew the Cronkite School and had always been impressed with it. “From there he decided to Google me.” When he searched for her name, her blog Faith, Fashion, Fitness popped up, and she said it was then he knew she fit the description of who he was looking for.
Wait – Faith, Fashion, Fitness?
Conventional knowledge would suggest having a religion-centered blog is a rather bold move for a rookie journalist. In fact, Chierstin said she gave a lot of thought to the risk involved in revealing her faith through her blog. She and Tim had discussed that her Twitter profile and tweets clearly showed faith was very important to her and that it had the potential to set her apart from other journalists. The question was whether embracing that distinction was a good thing or a bad thing.
“I always thought that faith was something you should just leave out, that no one should know your faith or whatever. But at the same time, that’s a huge part of my life,” Chierstin said. “For (Tim) to come up and tell me that was like, alright, I’m totally going to include that in my blog.”
It turns out the decision to reveal her faith was a very good thing for Chierstin. The hiring manager who saw her reel had called from Liberty University’s Liberty Flames Sports Network, which had an opening for a program launching in January. In case you aren’t familiar with it, Liberty University is the world’s largest Christian university.
“Who would have thought sports and my faith would tie together?” Chierstin said. Despite her deliberate decision to blog about religion and sports, Chierstin admitted her getting a position that combined her interests exceeded anything she could have ever imagined. “I never really thought that I could tie the two together.”
Chierstin had initally created a fashion blog as an assignment during her sophomore year, but after the class ended, she took it down because it wasn’t something she was passionate about. (Now here’s the part of the story that completely surprised me … ) Apparently, Chierstin decided to start blogging again after she heard me speak in Tim’s class two years ago.
“It wasn’t until you came in and spoke about really branding yourself through a blog. That’s the only reason that I started it; it had nothing to do with an assignment,” Chierstin told me. “You had talked about starting a blog about something that you’re interested in. I had an interest in sports, but I didn’t know what I was going to pursue. And so at the time, (I thought) faith … always a big part of my life … I love fitness and fashion … so why not, you know? So I put it out there and started the blog.”
Chierstin started her dream job last week. You could say it was serendipity that led the hiring manager to her YouTube post and blog, but that would discount the critical thinking that went into her decisions – ones she made with her eyes wide open. Chierstin understood the importance of personal branding, the power of being authentic and the strategies for using the online tools that are available to all journalism students launching their careers, even when it’s not an assignment.
“It’s all a matter of just having yourself available and putting yourself out there – your reel and your resume and everything online digitally – so it’s really easy for people to find you.”
When I speak with journalism students about their personal brands, I always stress they shouldn’t wait until they’re graduated to establish their online presences. Everything they need to share their bodies of work and begin distinguishing themselves within the profession is right at their fingertips. Seriously, it’s all there.
So where should they begin?
I’ve created a blog resources page that lists the links I provide students to get them started. It reflects my approach to personal branding for journalists:
- Know yourself.
- Know your goals and values.
- Know how, where and to whom to communicate those qualities effectively.
Understanding your personality, skills, talents and life experiences allows you to make smart choices about where you fit in the newsroom. If you can articulate your career goals and value system, you can target employers and opportunities to reflect them. Ultimately, the self-awareness you gain from defining your brand as a journalist will make it easier to authentically engage your audience, connect with colleagues and build trust with the public.