Brand Me a Journalist

Using Social Media to Create a Professional Niche

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How a personal-branding leap of faith landed a rookie reporter her dream job

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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.

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ASU Cronkite School graduate Chierstin Susel (Photo by Jez Noble)

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.”

How my social media producer job helped refine my brand as a journalist

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As I mentioned in a recent post, my blogging about social media and personal branding played a major role in my getting hired as a social media producer at azcentral. My multimedia journalism graduate degree and familiarity with social media tools allowed for a smooth transition into Republic Media’s converged TV, print and online newsroom.

But after less than a year in the position, I had to quit my job a few weeks ago because the company my husband works for has decided to relocate us to the NY metro area. I’m now focusing on preparing for our move but will continue to write this blog, do freelance social media work and give guest lectures until we’re settled. I’m sad to leave Phoenix and my colleagues at azcentral. I have to admit, however, that I’m really excited about the career opportunities this move will offer in New York.

Although I worked at azcentral only briefly, it was enough time to recognize which parts of the job energized me and what I have to offer as part of a news organization. My main responsibilities involved posting stories on Facebook and Twitter, monitoring social media for trends and breaking news and engaging our audience. I definitely enjoyed that role, but after a while, I found my most satisfiying times in the newsroom were when I was using social media to help other journalists with their reporting. So I actively started approaching reporters and finding ways social media could assist them with their stories. Whether I was finding sources on Facebook who had been specifically affected by the massive Wallow Fire or using Storify to crowdsource reaction to a unusual local weather phenomenon, I loved how social media enhanced stories and did my part to show reporters how to take advantage of it. Those experiences eventually defined my contribution to our social media team and refined my brand.

Finding breaking news sources using social media

My day usually began by scanning my TweetDeck streams for local and national news that had broken overnight. (I loved being paid to know what was going on.) Our converged newsroom meant I was a few feet from the breaking news desk, print reporters, online team and television producers. If I saw a tweet from a Twitter user or another news organization that mentioned a developing story, I’d be on my feet to check if they knew about it. This responsibility suited my personality well; it’s my nature to be helpful and to share information with people. I monitored news tweets, hashtags and social media comments for relevant content and passed it on whenever it might be useful.

One highlight for me was when a Breaking News tweet I saw helped turn an international story into a local one for azcentral. I heard an early morning story on NPR about a Russian plane crash and later saw a @BreakingNews tweet announcing the plane was carrying an entire Russian hockey team.

I clicked the link to the NHL press release and found the coach was former Phoenix Coyotes player Brad McCrimmon, so I alerted the breaking news desk and told the home page editor about it. He searched our archives, found dozens of references to the coach and called the reporter who covers the Coyotes. Within 20 minutes, we had the enhanced wire story on our site. We posted our local story on Facebook and Twitter within the next hour.

This example elegantly highlights how social media’s role as part of a converged newsroom dynamic led to comprehensive news coverage of a local, and yet international, tragedy.

Crowdsourcing special projects 

Azcentral’s social media team encouraged reporters to tap into our social media followers (as well as their own) to crowdsource, and I let them know I was there to help. We used live chats to generate questions for interviews with experts, turned to Quora to find answers to niche questions, and when Osama bin Laden was captured and killed, I gathered local reaction using Storify. Most often, we helped reporters use Twitter and Facebook to find story ideas and sources.

Our crowdsourced 9/11 anniversary Arizona Republic front page was an unprecedented and unexpected social media achievement. Before the anniversary, azcentral and 12 News posted requests for six-word responses to the question “What does 9/11 mean to you?” on Facebook and Twitter and got over 600 responses. Their collective impact was so profound that the editors decided to wallpaper the front page of the Arizona Republic with the six-word statements against a silhouette of the Twin Towers and New York skyline. For the first time in the paper’s history, the front page was crowdsourced. The response was overwhelmingly positive within the local community and the newspaper industry.

I became a journalist because I wanted to tell people’s stories. Using social media tools to bring out otherwise unheard voices – even if they’re only making six-word statements – truly inspired me, and this part of my role as social media producer confirmed that I want crowdsourcing to be an even bigger part of my next job.

Training reporters and editors

I really enjoyed training colleagues to use social media for reporting. Despite the ubiquity of social media references in the news and within the newsroom, many very talented journalists had no interest in creating or actively using social media accounts. They’d been able to write compelling stories without them for years and saw no need to change their habits. Some had Twitter accounts but didn’t know how to maximize them, while others had been effectively using them to solicit ideas and sources and were eager to learn new tricks.

Each week I wrote a social media newsletter to share tips and give examples of five good tweets from the week. I also did one-on-one training of how to set up Twitter, Facebook’s subscribe feature, LinkedIn and TweetDeck. The feedback I got from reporters, whether it was a quick email saying the Five Good Tweets helped them become more comfortable with tweeting or a request for crowdsourcing advice, showed me the range of confidence and social media expertise throughout the staff. I genuinely enjoyed working with all skill levels and tailoring the training to their needs.

Providing help is a central part of who I am and my brand as a journalist, whether it’s to get information out, tell stories or teach. For now, I’ll be have to put that energy into helping my family move, but soon enough I’ll be using it to help myself get a job.

My advice to j-school students: How building an online brand helped me get my online job

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When I talk to journalism students about using social media to build their brands, their questions often are practical ones: What if someone already has my name as a Twitter handle? Do I really have to edit my Facebook page? How often should I blog? But the best question a student asked me challenged the very idea that journalists should bother with personal branding in the first place:

“It takes so much time to do everything you’re talking about, like blogging and tweeting and keeping all those profiles updated, on top of writing stories. How do you know it’s actually paying off for you?”

Before I could reply, his professor provided the best answer: “Because she’s standing up here in front of you.” (If you know Cronkite School professor Tim McGuire, you can appreciate his delivery of that line.)

The fact is the student was right. It takes extra effort to maintain an online presence as a journalist. And I admitted I couldn’t tell him which tweet would be the one that got him retweeted 25 times, which blog post would be shared around the world or which skill listed on his LinkedIn profile would make him rise to the top of a search.

Nonetheless, I assured him all that extra effort was worth it because each tweet, each blog post and each online profile defined his brand and provided a virtual trail for potential employers to find him. I told him I knew this personally because I’d sent tweets that got dozens of retweets, I’d written a blog post that was shared from Peru to Spain after someone translated it into Spanish and I’d been contacted for jobs via LinkedIn – all while I was still a grad student.

Then I reassured him there was no reason he and his classmates couldn’t do the same.

Today’s j-school students have everything they need to start mapping out their careers. They can write niche blogs, create simple portfolios, connect with others doing the work they aspire to do and develop professional networks across the country before they’ve even begun their job searches. It hasn’t always been that way; when I went to journalism school in the 1980s, students sent out resumes, applied for jobs and waited for a phone call. But as a grad student over two decades later, I recognized that from my first assignment, I was building the online brand that would eventually get me my job as a social media producer.

Here’s how I did it:

Creating a name for myself – literally: I had no online identity when I began grad school after 12 years as a stay-at-home mom. Google searches of my name brought up a scholar who researched Egypt and one passing reference to me as my husband’s wife. I clearly had some work to do. When I got my first online assignment to create a blog, I deliberately used my full name, Jennifer Gaie Hellum, and did the same on social media accounts and as a reporter at Cronkite News Service. By the end of grad school, a search for Jennifer Hellum – even without my middle name – brought me to the top of the page on Google.

Helping people find my work: I always took the time to add tags to blog posts for SEO, add links to other blogs and thank others who linked to mine. Publishing a post meant sending a tweet with the link and any relevant hashtags, keywords or the Twitter handle of anyone I’d interviewed. I also took my professors’ advice and created a LinkedIn account, joined journalism associations and bought my vanity URL to use for my online portfolio.

Choosing blog topics and reporting assignments that fit my brand:  This blog started as an assignment for a digital media entrepreneurship class. As someone with little online media experience at the time, I found a digital topic, personal branding via social media, that genuinely fit with my earlier advertising and public relations career. At the suggestion of my professors, I kept the blog going during the summer and beyond my final semester because it had become clear I was the only person regularly writing about the topic. During my capstone semester as a producer and reporter at Cronkite News Service, I found ways to use social media as a reporting tool and even wrote about city governments using social media. In the end, my blog and social media knowledge became the strongest part of my resume.

Doing the job I aspired to have: As soon as I learned about social media as an area of journalism, I began using it to learn about social media jobs. I set up Google alerts and TweetDeck columns for “social media editor” and read everything I could about the position. I followed social media editors on Twitter, looked at their job histories and skill sets on LinkedIn and read their blogs and decided my interests and personality fit well with the work. I also participated in Twitter chats with online journalists, and if they mentioned a digital tool I was unfamiliar with, I looked it up so I could join in the conversation. (The chat organizer later invited me to be a guest panelist about personal branding and social media along with experienced journalists.) And during my last sememster, I went to the Online News Association conference in D.C and used what I learned to improve CNS’s Facebook profile and help other reporters find sources on Twitter.  All that extra effort paid off when I was recommended for a social media producer position at azcentral.com and was able to share what I knew and how I’d used it.

Of course, I’m not the only one to figure out that I didn’t have to wait to start building a brand. Many multimedia journalism students post their reels on YouTube, share photos on Flickr and create online portfolios that showcase their programming skills, and it’s paying off. They’re getting hits, they’re getting noticed and best of all, they’re getting hired.

A j-school graduate’s defense of (figuratively) branding journalists

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When I decided to call my student blog Brand Me a Journalist, I chose the name because I thought it was somewhat clever and easy to remember. I hadn’t fully contemplated its inherent call to action – that is, until I read Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten’s response to a student who asked how he developed his brand:

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.

I had two reactions to his advice:

  1. I hope he never takes my blog name literally. (The guy clearly has the technique down, and I’m not into body modification.)
  2. I hope he’s not a mentor.

As a graduate student at the Cronkite School, I learned about personal branding in Tim McGuire’s 21st century media organizations class and later began this blog for Dan Gillmor’s digital media entrepreneurship class. These classes addressed the economic realities and creative possibilities in the new media landscape. Both professors, whom I consider mentors, encouraged me to write this blog and impressed upon us the need to strategically begin creating our digital footprints as students – a powerful career-launching tool that was not available to j-students when I got my undergraduate degree in 1989.

These respected newspapermen understood the increasingly important role of personal branding for journalists, so I wasn’t at all surprised to hear that Medill professor Owen Youngman had assigned a graduate student, identified simply as “Leslie”, to reach out to Weingarten about the topic.

I was completely caught off guard to read the way Weingarten treated Leslie, not being familiar with his distinctive brand. I’d made similar cold-call requests of veteran journalists such as Worldcrunch’s Jeff Israely, and they gladly discussed their brands. But instead of enlightening her with how a “hungry young reporter in the 1970s” came to be a two-time Pulitzer prize-winning columnist (he even has a tagline, a considerable branding asset) at one of the country’s most prestigious news organizations, Weingarten used the occasion to decry the hijacking of journalism’s noble mission by marketing departments and user-generated content.

As Steve Buttry pointed out in his reply to Weingarten’s non-answer to Leslie’s question, Weingarten was not interested in admitting his considerable success is due in part to the strength of his well-cultivated personal brand. His disdain for the word “branding” prevents him from recognizing that it simply is about defining yourself as a journalist and establishing your reputation among your audience, which is no different than what journalists have historically done; it just used to be called “making a name for yourself.”

Indeed, Weingarten has established a formidable reputation name brand, which is supported by his publishers’ marketing efforts and his deliberate social media presence. At various points during his four-decade career, he strategically positioned himself:

  • by committing himself to covering a specific beat to the best of his ability
  • by developing valuable relationships with readers and sources
  • by associating with other journalists doing similar work
  • by pursuing related opportunities that complemented his position

All of these are elements of branding. Whether he wants to admit it or not, he’s very deliberately built his brand.

But rather than seeing Leslie’s overture to a veteran journalist as an opportunity to pass on his professional insights to the next generation of reporters, Weingarten dismisses us as unworthy, talentless self-promoters who aren’t willing to work hard “to get great stories.” Leslie tried to get a great story, one about an accomplished journalist who started out as a “hungry young reporter in the 1970s”; instead, she got a lecture.

So while Weingarten finds comfort in longing for the way things used to be, we aspiring journalists will continue to take advantage of digital media tools available to launch our careers:

  • by building innovative portfolio sites that show our command of writing and programming
  • by posting video resumes on YouTube to show our storytelling, camera work and editing skills (we multimedia journalists do it all)
  • by uploading photos to Flickr and Instagram
  • by finding sources via Facebook
  • by connecting with colleagues via Twitter, journalism chats such as wjchat, LinkedIn groups and conferences to learn about the jobs we aspire to have
  • by staying up until 3 a.m. to write blog posts that very likely won’t be seen but that reveal our passion for writing and commitment to our beats
  • by reaching out to those veteran journalism pros who get that branding is just a word, not a threat

All this before we’ve been hired. Through our initiative, focus and hard work, we’re assembling bodies of work, “making names for ourselves” and pursuing our goals as journalists.

So you can keep your red-hot iron, sir; we’re building our own brands.

Social media spring cleaning: 50 tasks (or 7 short lists) for maintaining your personal brand

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When I talk to journalism students about managing their personal brands, they often are overwhelmed by the maintenance of their online profiles and portfolios. Students as well as working journalists are constantly producing new content and/or acquiring new skills that should be reflected in their online identities.  Whether you do it weekly, monthly or seasonly, it’s important to have a routine for updating profiles, building networks, adding content and clarifying your brand.

So now that it’s officially spring, set aside time this week to do some personal branding spring cleaning. Start with one account and see how much has changed since you last updated your content. If you’re feeling ambitious and want to tackle one list each day, your digital footprint will be up to date in a week.

Twitter:

  1. Make sure your profile blurb is up to date. Include your photo, current position and location, as well as a link to your blog, LinkedIn or portfolio page. Without these details, those you follow will have to do too much work to decide whether they should reciprocate and follow you. So they probably won’t.
  2. Use the remaining lines of your blurb to relate what you feel is most central to your brand, whether it be your beat, interests, associations or personality.
  3. Consider whether your profile picture continues to reflect the professional image you want to present. Is the photo current? Is the image recognizable? Could people you know ITL (in Twitter life) pick you out of a group IRL (in real life)?
  4. Take a moment to look at your Twitter page (not TweetDeck or Hootsuite) stream of tweets collectively as a snapshot of who you are as a journalist. Make sure the tweets in general are professionally relevant.
  5. Consider the knowledge, skills and talents you have and evaluate whether they’re reflected directly or indirectly in your tweets.
  6. Ask yourself if a viewer of your Twitter page could identify your journalistic niche. If not, send a few tweets, retweets and replies to clarify what you’re interested in.
  7. Decide whether you’re effectively promoting a relevant niche or unnecessarily pigeonholing yourself and undermining your greater professional goals.
  8. Look for unintentional bias or questionable ethics in your tweets and in those you retweet. Delete anything questionable.
  9. If you’re following keywords or hashtags, look for Twitter users who appear frequently in those feeds and consider following them to start conversations and expand your network.
  10. Note which other hashtags they follow.

Facebook:

  1. Check your privacy settings: are they public, allowing you to connect with your audience, create discussions and find sources and story ideas, or private?
  2. If public, make the page suitable for current and prospective employers, sources and colleagues to see in its entirety.
  3. Update your profile page information, keeping it consistent with your Twitter profile information while adding other details about yourself that invite connections with your audience.
  4. Include a link to your portfolio or blog in your “Contact Information.”
  5. Use the “About Me” section of the “Basic Information” tab to add other social media accounts, such as Twitter and LinkedIn.
  6. Read your wall and consider the ongoing story it tells about you. Does it reflect your personal brand well? Would a source find you trustworthy? Discreet? Credible?
  7. Check the photos you’ve been tagged in for appropriate content. Remove tags if offensive or otherwise damaging.
  8. Review fan pages you’ve “liked” and decide whether they reflect positively or negatively on the brand you’re trying to present. Consider adding a disclaimer the “About Me” section of the “Basic Information” tab to explain that your “liking” a fan page does not indicate your endorsement of it, but rather it simply gives you access to the feed.
  9. Look for relevant news organizations to “like.” These can change as your beat and niche change.
  10. Check out your colleagues’ profiles to find journalism groups to join.

LinkedIn:

  1. Home: Update your status to reflect what you’re currently working on. Are you looking for story ideas? Sources? A new job?
  2. Profile: Check to see who has viewed your profile recently and look for possible connections to pursue.
  3. Decide if your photo is appropriate as a professional representation suitable for your niche. Correct any outdated information and add new employment experience, skills, associations and links to relevant work.
  4. Update your “Info” page, incorporating your Twitter profile information and adding details about yourself that invite connections with your audience. Include links to your other social media accounts, such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs and portfolios.
  5. Contacts: Write a recommendation for someone you found valuable as a connection.
  6. Groups: Look for employer, alumni, journalism  and association groups to join and participate in a discussion.
  7. Jobs: Check to see who’s hiring and what skills/knowledge they’re asking for in job descriptions that interest you.
  8. Inbox: Reply to any messages you’ve received.
  9. Companies: See who has profiles associated with specific news organizations and other employers for possible connections.
  10. More: Consider purchasing an upgrade to gain access to extended profiles and job opportunities.

Google/search:

  1. Do a Google search to see what others are finding when they search your name. Is it you or someone with a similar name who appears in the search results? If so, consider using a more search-friendly name professionally.
  2. Do additional, narrower “News” and “Blogs” searches (under the “more” search tab) to see if your work is being linked to. Add relevant links to your portfolio.
  3. Set up Google alerts for your name and blog name to receive notifications. This is particularly useful if your work has been used by a news aggregator or cited on a blog.
  4. Consider adding blogs to your RSS that are relevant to your niche in journalism. Commenting on posts and engaging colleagues will increase your online authority and presence in search.
  5. Check out your Klout score. Regardless of whether you find it to be a reliable measure of online authority, your colleagues and potential employers may, so you should be familiar with it.

Blog:

  1. Read through your “About” page and decide whether it authentically represents your voice, your niche and your brand.
  2. Look over the headlines of your posts to make sure they are on topic. Read through the comments and find opportunities for conversations with your readers.
  3. Revisit your blogroll and determine whether to delete or add sites. In the end, you want a focused yet comprehensive blogroll that encompasses the range of topics within your journalistic niche and blog topic.
  4. Add sharing widgets such as TweetMeme that help readers easily share your posts on Twitter and Facebook.
  5. If you are using a blogging platform, consider purchasing the URL of your blog name and migrating your content there.

Portfolio/Google profile:

  1. Look at your homepage. Does it clearly state your area of specialization within journalism?
  2. Click through all of your tabs to make sure the navigation is logical.
  3. Click through all the links and fix any broken ones.
  4. Update your employment, awards and associations sections.
  5. Post recent work or add links to content you’ve created.

Chats:

  1. Find a weekly chat such in which you can participate that addresses topics within your niche. Journalism chats such as #spjchat take place on Twitter, within news organizations and on Poynter.com.(Here’s a post I wrote about chat etiquette.)
  2. Make time in your schedule to participate live or read through transcripts after they’ve been posted or curated.
  3. Look through transcripts to find who hosts and actively participates in the chats and follow them on Twitter.
  4. Suggest topics you’d like to see discussed.
  5. If you can’t find a chat that specifically addresses your specialty, consider creating/hosting one as a way to establish authority within your niche.

 

If you have a routine for maintaining your online presence, feel free to share tips and suggestions in the comments.

Know Thyself: Figuring out what your brand is and how to express it

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I recently was invited to speak at ASU’s Cronkite School as part of “After Cronkite”, a series of brown-bag lunch discussions to help students prepare for their job searches. In the inaugural session titled “Know Thyself! Now Tell Others,” I joined Jody Brannon, the national director of the Carnegie-Knight News21 journalism initiative, to talk with students about understanding their personal brands and ways to incorporate them into their online identities through blogs, social media and portfolio sites.

Many questions focused on Facebook and Twitter and what constitutes appropriate personal and professional posts. One student asked us whether we’d be inclined to hire a candidate whose tweets revealed a strong personality over someone whose tweets revealed little personality. For me, the answer to that question would depend on whether the applicants’ personal brands – reflected through their overall digital presences – were good fits for the position.

A more fundamental question needs to be answered before you can know what online content is appropriate:

Who are you?

You can’t know your brand as a journalist if you don’t know yourself as a person.

Are you a global citizen with a healthy dose of cynicism and a passion for politics? Are you an empathetic storyteller who values images as well as words to connect with communities? Or are you an activist who believes revealing your biases makes you more credible when exposing injustice? Each of these profiles would dictate a distinct personal branding strategy.

You need self-awareness to know whether your digital presence is promoting or betraying your brand and, as a result, sabotaging your professional goals. As a journalist, your ability to communicate what makes you unique, i.e., your brand, will help you establish a professional niche that you can pursue with confidence and integrity.

Fortunately, many resources are available to help you understand the qualities and characteristics that collectively make you who you are.

Personality type

Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you make decisions with your heart or your head? The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) identifies 16 distinct personality types based on eight key traits. These personality traits are reflected in your personal brand, and being aware of them will help you know whether you’re effectively and appropriately conveying them through your online profiles.

In the decades since the MBTI’s initial publication in the 1960s, test administrators have used the tool to help people understand the role personality plays in career choice. (Employers commonly use its results during the hiring process and for management training.) You can have the test administered by a trained professional who can provide an in-depth assessment, but many online sites and books feature MBTI profiles from which you can gain a general understanding of the personality types.

When I took the Myers-Briggs test as part of career counseling services, the administrator stressed the results would only be valuable if I agreed they accurately reflected my personality. The assessment said I was an ESFJ, and when I read the description, it was so spot-on I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry. So although I enjoy reading clever tweets from skeptics, philosophers and provocateurs, it would be inconsistent with who I am to emulate them and present myself as anything but a harmony-seeking, rule-following “Extra Special Friendly Joiner.”

Aptitudes

Although most people won’t find it necessary to seek IQ testing as part of determining their personal brands, it is of value to at least understand the distinction between your innate cognitive abilities and the knowledge and skills you’ve acquired throughout your life.

For adults, it’s not as important to know raw IQ test scores as it is to know which cognitive abilities are your best. (Often, trained test administrators have policies of not providing raw scores to adults and instead use general result terms, such as “average” and “very superior.”) I was given the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale – Revised IQ test, and although I wasn’t provided raw scores, I was given a ranking of how I performed on the test sections. I found it tremendously valuable to learn the abilities I had taken for granted, verbal reasoning and spatial relations, were among my strongest. That knowledge has allowed me to apply those abilities as a multimedia journalist and confidently present them online.

Talents

Like personality and aptitudes, talents are innate. Understanding the distinction between your talents and your acquired skills will give you the vocabulary to express what makes you unique and what you have to offer professionally, even when you lack the skills required for a specific position.

In 2001, Donald O. Clifton, founder of SRI Gallup, and Marcus Buckingham, a senior vice president of The Gallup Organization, used research they gathered in interviews with over two million subjects to identify 34 universal talent themes and developed a survey through which individuals could find their “Top 5″ talents.

Each copy of their book Strengthfinder 2.0 includes a unique access code that allows you to take the assessment online and identify your Top 5. (Mine are Learner, AchieverCommunication, Input and Individualization.) It offers examples of how others have used their talents successfully in their careers and guides you through applying your Top 5 in your professional and personal life.

By taking the assessment, I learned how my talents influence the kind of journalist I want to be: a person driven to gather information and learn about people’s lives to communicate their diverse, individual stories. The blog posts I write, tweets I send, articles I share on Facebook, and the people I connect with on chats and LinkedIn tend to reflect these qualities about me.

Skills/Knowledge

Social media offer constant opportunities to share the abilities and knowledge you’ve acquired throughout your life. Rather than relying on job interviews to relate them to potential employers, you now can present them online through digital resumes and portfolios that can be found in search as well as through casual references in tweets, chats, online groups and other social media.

It’s OK to show what you know. Whether I’m commenting during #wjchat about digital storytelling tools for journalists (social media), sharing photos via Twitpics (photography) or respondiendo a un tuit (Spanish), each of these digital footprints I leave reveal a skill of mine and add dimension to my brand.

Life experiences and interests

Your family life, friendships and the communities you’ve lived in are just a few of the many influences that affect your belief system and inform your perspective as a journalist. Your collection of life experiences and interests naturally emerge through social media and reveal commonalities you share with others. The challenge lies in understanding how these personal elements affect your personal brand and deciding whether incorporating them into your online presence strategically enhances or detracts from it. What you say, join and “like” can potentially make you interesting or turn people off.

Anyone following me on my tweets and hashtags knows I’m from Green Bay, Wisconsin (#Packers), have two bright sons (#Ilovemyboys), stay up too late (#nightowl) and like watching Mad Men with my husband (#callmebettydraper). These personal glimpses don’t directly involve my professional life, but when shared appropriately, they can spark connections with others and add a personal element to my brand.

Once you understand how your personality, aptitudes, talents, skills, life experiences and interests fit together, you’ll quickly be able to assess whether they’re reflected in your online presence as well as your face-to-face interactions. Take a few minutes to view a snapshot of yourself online and see if it reveals who you genuinely are.

The evolving personal brand of a traditional journalist-turned-entrepreneurial journalist

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Every so often, I receive pingback notifications alerting me that someone has linked to one of my posts. As a regular TIME magazine reader, I immediately recognized former foreign correspondent Jeff Israely’s name when a message showed he had referenced my blog in a post he wrote for Nieman Journalism Lab. Jeff recently launched Worldcrunch, a global news site, and has been chronicling his experience from the point of view of a traditional journalist-turned-entrepreneurial journalist. He mentioned in his post the “uncomfortable truth” that journalists must attend to their personal brands, so I contacted him to discuss how his transition to becoming an entrepreneur has affected the brand he’d established while at TIME.

Jeff began his career in the early 1990s at daily newspapers in California and later moved to Rome with his wife, who is Italian. He freelanced and did stringer reporting, including work for the Boston Globe, before starting with TIME in late 2001. There he covered major international stories such as Pope John Paul II’s death and the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino. After his position was eliminated in 2009, he continued to write for TIME as a regular freelance contributor while he considered his next options, which included developing his plans for Worldcrunch.

In a phone interview from his home in Paris, Jeff said although he only became aware of the term “personal branding” in the past year, he was very familiar with the realities of marketing his work.

“TIME was not shy about promoting us. They would get us on TV and had little bios of us on their website. They have a PR operation that’s working solely on that,”  Jeff said. “The difference is, in the past, I could rely both on the magazine brand itself and also on the manpower of their marketing operation to promote my work.”

That changed when he decided to pursue his world news venture on his own. Jeff now had to think about how to create buzz for his site without the benefit of a corporate marketing department. He joined Facebook and Twitter and started News Launch Diary, a blog chronicling his efforts. He also purchased his vanity URL, www.jeffisraely.com, an essential step recommended by personal branding experts (although he hasn’t yet developed the site.)

In addition, he took his cues from TIME’s promotional tactics and sought a “guest appearance” with a prominent news outlet that would be interested in publishing his insights about his journey. Within the first few months of starting his own blog, Jeff contacted Josh Benton at Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab and pitched the idea of writing regularly for them. According to Jeff, part of Josh’s interest in the guest blog posts was the appeal of his evolving brand as “the TIME correspondent starting up his new project.”

“I’ve been very conscious about that transition,” Jeff said, “because I knew — it’s something that I’ll always carry with me — that the experience and attention that I’ve gotten from working for TIME and other organizations is a huge help in creating this personal brand.”

Given the value of his prestigious association with a legacy news organization, Jeff said he was quite deliberate about waiting until Worldcrunch’s site was live to change his Twitter profile from that of a former TIME correspondent to that of the global news site’s founder and editor. He said he believes his transition from being a reporter to his new role as an entrepreneur will be viewed as authentic because of the transparent way he has shared what he’s learned while creating his business.

“I think as this process progresses and grows, I’m gaining experience as the founder of this new media project and can speak about that on its own terms,” Jeff said. “I’ve gotten contacted by colleagues from the old media, who are in a similar position, who wanted to hear about my experience. But the idea is to eventually just be the Worldcrunch founder and that will stand on its own.”

Despite his having to learn how to navigate personal branding, Jeff challenged the suggestion made by some that managing a professional identity is a new consideration for journalists.

“It’s inside all of us, because part of the reason we got into (journalism) is we want people to see our work and, to be blunt about it, we want people to see us,” Jeff said.

His visibility on the Nieman Journalism Lab site effectively led people to read Jeff’s blog and follow him on Twitter. But it wasn’t until he recognized the synergistic interplay between those two social media tools that his project started to get attention.

“I started blogging and I started getting on Twitter, but very quickly I saw that you don’t get a lot of traction just by blogging and letting it sit there and even just by tweeting,” Jeff said. “You’ve got to think about ways to get your blogs and your tweets into other people’s blogs and other people’s tweets. So you’ve gotta think about how you tweet, and you’ve gotta think about how you blog, and you’ve gotta think about how the two things go together.”

That said, he warned journalists not to get disproportionately focused on the need to push their names and push their personal brands.

“Ultimately, your personal brand is only as good as the work that you do. The first priority is doing good work,” Jeff said.

“But then, we have to devote a certain amount of our energy, attention and creativity to how to get it out there. It doesn’t happen by itself.”

Written by Jennifer Gaie Hellum

January 18, 2011 at 7:42 am

How journalists’ personal brands enhance community engagement

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I just returned from the Online News Association’s annual conference in Washington, DC, where I had the opportunity to hear industry leaders discuss technology and trends that are shaping the future of online news. The subject of personal branding unexpectedly came up during a session about news organizations’ engagement policies when NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepard posed the following question:

In lean newsrooms, how do you get reporters to get involved in comment moderation?

Jeff Hidek, community engagement editor for the Wilmington StarNews’ StarNewsonline.com, responded that the paper’s reporters became invested in moderating their comments after focus group findings revealed how significantly readers paid attention to reporters’ bylines and social media accounts.

I talked to Jeff after the session to find out more about how the reporters’ personal brands influenced their readers’ loyalty. He said although the focus groups’ purpose had been to address general topics about the paper and its website rather than its reporters, the most insightful finding came when they asked the readers what would make them read a story that they wouldn’t normally read.

“The most consistent comment was ‘because I follow Shelby (Sebens) on Twitter‘ or ‘I’m going to read any story by Si (Cantwell) because he comes out to our community and cares about what we say,’” Jeff said.

Consequently, the focus group results gave the reporters a heightened awareness of and greater appreciation for their readers’ loyalty, which made them more interested in participating in the comments. It also gave them more leverage in pitching stories to their editors.

“What a great way to connect to say thanks for reading,” Jeff said. “And at the same time, by reading things like ‘I always read anything Shelby writes’ (reporters) found they now could go to their editors and say, ‘Let me write this; I know they’ll read it.'”

He added that by harnessing social media to develop their brands, the reporters not only strengthened their readerships but also grew their pool of sources. For example, Shelby started a blog for her beat and became even more closely identified with her Brunswick County reporter brand. When she later handed off the beat to another reporter, he inherited a loyal base while she retained her readers as she became the city government reporter. Jeff also helped the paper’s film reporter Amy Hotz create a Ning social network page called Wilm on Film to access people who worked in Wilmingtons’s film industry.

“Now any time Amy has a question, instead of paging through the regional film commission’s directory for sources, she posts it on Facebook, Twitter and wilmonfilm.com and has four sources in no time.”

Since taking on the position of community engagement editor (in addition to being the paper’s TV critic), Jeff has been in charge of streamlining the paper’s social media policies and accounts and developing curation guidelines for the reporters’ individual accounts. These guidelines include that reporters commit to regularly moderating comments and posting on their social media accounts.

He also acts as a newsroom liaison to the paper’s marketing department as reporters’ personal brands take a greater role in the paper’s overall marketing strategy. He said there’s been no pushback from management against emphasis on reporters’ brands because they know that what’s good for the reporter is good for them. In fact, management has committed to doing a branding campaign focused on its reporters similar to those done by television news programs.

“They recognize that everyone at the paper is a representation of the paper,” Jeff said. “It’s great that we have a brand as a paper and as site, but it’s more than that; we want people to see us as part of the community – because we are part of the community.”

Adventures in Retweets: My 48 Hours as an International Blogging Sensation

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(This is the second of 30 posts referring to 10,000 Words’ 30 Things Journalism Grads Should Do This Summer, as I work my way down the list of recommended digital media tasks.)

After a two-month hiatus from blogging, I was pleased to see the enthusiastic response to my return post as I announced my effort to tackle the ambitious 10,000 Words to-do list. I got an encouraging amount of blog traffic and a pair of comments, including votes of confidence from a journalism professor and from the list’s author himself.

I didn’t, however, accomplish the next task on the list:

Task #2: If you already have a blog, write a post that gets retweeted 20 times.

No, although the retweets I got were highly appreciated ones from a few high-profile journalists, they totaled a humbling three retweets. I’m hopeful the number will increase as I share my successes, failures, obstacles and reflections, but for now I’ll have to focus this post on my only experience of getting retweeted more than 20 times.

Over two exhilarating days last May, a tweet announcing a blog post of mine went out to my 100+ followers, got retweeted by a few of my professors and found its way to a Peruvian journalist with a gift for translation and a large international following. Here’s how I related the incident to my professor Dan Gillmor the following day:

I have to thank you for the RT yesterday. You set off a cascade of RTs, which included a Peruvian journalist who translated my post and credited me by name. It’s been re-tweeted from her site 100 times and posted on FB 30 times, and I’m suddenly being followed by dozens of South American journos. (Fortunately, I speak Spanish well enough to understand what’s being said by them.) … I ended the day with 956 hits on my blog and another 250+ today. Crazy. So much for a blog wrap-up; I think I’ll keep writing it for a while.

Ironically, the post was supposed to be the conclusion to this blog, an end-of-semester reflection on what I had learned while blogging 2-3 times a week for Dan and CJ Cornell’s Digital Media Entrepreneurship class.

To what do I credit this unexpected level of response to my blog, which during the semester had only twice received more than 100 hits in a day? In fact, in covering the social media/personal branding beat, I noticed a few things about retweeted tweets:

  1. Enumerated lists catch people’s eyes. Like those on magazine cover blurbs, lists of tips, suggestions and other actionable tasks appeal to people’s desire for advice and measurable results.
  2. Tweets posted during the workday get noticed more than those posted at 2 a.m. (when I often finished writing my posts). Even though Twitter users have applications like TweetDeck and Seesmic for managing tweets, I’ve found the tweets that trickle in during the day get more individual attention than the dozens waiting for me when I check it in the morning.
  3. Well-crafted tweets, laden with relevant keywords and IDs of other Twitter users, will get retweeted by people other than your followers.

I decided to test my first theory on my final post, hoping for maximum traffic to my student blog. I set out to write a top-ten list and eventually ended up with a collection of tips: 12 Tips for Journalists: My Semester on the Personal Branding Beat. I then, as always, posted a tweet, making sure to use essential keywords such as “social media”,” journalists” and “personal branding” (note the time stamp):

I went to bed pleased with my list strategy and woke only to be disappointed by the lack of response. I had worked hard on this post, highlighting the skills I’d gained and the interviews I’d conducted. I’d even managed to reference one of my digital media heroes, Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl)– although I’d failed at embedding her podcast. But later in the day, she provided the necessary code, and I retweeted the revised posts to signal to her that I’d successfully added it. This gave me the opportunity to test out my second theory, and I re-sent my tweet 12 hours after I originally posted it:

Within minutes, a few of my professors at Cronkite retweeted the link and sent direct messages saying they liked the post. They had missed the early-morning tweet completely. (It was finals week for all of us.) Fortunately for me, my professors are highly regarded in journalism nationally and, apparently, internationally. Peruvian digital journalist Esther Vargas, founder of Clasesdeperiodismo.com, an online digital journalism school for Latin American, saw the tweet and translated the entire blog post into Spanish:

From there, things truly became viral. In addition to the 50 retweets of my original tweet, readers of her blog from all corners of Central and South America, as well as Europe, responded by sending retweets and posting links on Facebook. My sons and I giggled as my hits climbed past 100, passed 500 and topped out near 1,000 in a day.

OK, my viral adventure may not have made me an international blogging sensation, but it did show me how powerful Twitter can be when used effectively. (An added benefit: I now get to read Spanish-language “tuits” from my new periodismo friends from around the world.)

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Next up: Task #3: Shoot 100 amazing photos and post them on Flickr. (This one will be fun. I got a new digital SLR for Mother’s Day– apparently just in time!)

Written by Jennifer Gaie Hellum

July 11, 2010 at 11:56 pm

Practicing What I Preached: Tackling the Journalism Student's Summer To-Do List

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A few months ago, I posted a link to an ambitious summer to-do list from the journalism and technology blog 10,000 Words. With nearly half of my summer gone and my sons away on vacation, I’ve decided to see how far down the list of 30 Things Journalism Grads Should Do This Summer I could get without access to the resources at the Cronkite School– similar to what traditional journalists would have to do to update their multimedia skills on their own.

Task #1: Start a blog and post at least twice a week.

Check. (This challenge is off to a great start!) I’ve had to write two blogs while in graduate school, one about being a non-traditional (older) student and this one about social media and personal branding. So rather than start another, I’ll resume writing this blog with a post about how easy it is to start one.

As recently as a year ago, I’d never knowingly read a blog, much less written one. I ignorantly had bought into all the stereotypes about bloggers being people in their pajamas/basements/garages writing about their hobbies/interests/obsessions and assumed they had nothing to say that would interest me. In fact, blogging is an important journalistic skill and an effective way for emerging journalists to create an online footprint or for established reporters to update their skills, show initiative and showcase their talents.

It wasn’t until we grad students were assigned blogging as a weekly task that my eyes were forced open to the power of blogging as a professional tool. I had only a weekend to decide on a topic, select a theme (what the blog looks like) and find my voice. Fortunately, I found an excellent resource in The Huffington Post’s Complete Guide to Blogging. The quick, easy read explained to me in practical terms how to get started and keep a blog going. It really was all I needed. (That and a deadline, courtesy of my professor.)

So how do you get a blog up and going within a weekend?

1. Pick a topic. Consider your career goals: What beat interests you? Are you interested in local, state, regional, national or international issues? Do you have a particular passion or talent that complements your journalism training? Make sure the topic is narrow enough to develop an expertise yet broad enough to allow you variety of subjects to explore. Among my graduate cohort we had an incredibly diverse range of blog topics: the established business journalist blogged about Phoenix business news, the amateur epicurean wrote about her adventures in the kitchen, and the aspiring international correspondent covered front pages of newspapers from around the world.

2. Pick a blogging platform. There are many blogging platforms available, some of which are free. (All of the above highlighted blogs were created using the free platform WordPress.com.) A paid service may be appropriate for those who are interested in making a career of blogging, but for those who simply want to try their hand at a new medium, the free services are more than adequate.

WordPress.com and Google’s Blogger have easy-to-use sites that walk you through setting up a blog. You can use their templates or personalize your blog with custom headers featuring your own photos or graphics, as well as specific widgets for desired functions such as search or archives.

3. Find your voice. Blogging is a more intimate medium than traditional print. While you don’t have to become a diarist or reject the journalistic standards of objectivity, you do want to find a tone in your writing that engages your reader and invites conversation. That voice can be authoritative or humorous, skeptical or entertaining. Just make sure it’s authentically your voice.

4. Start writing. Use your first post as an introduction to your blog. Outline your vision for the blog and what the reader can expect from you. Make sure you identify yourself on your “About” page and include a photo that presents a professional image.

5. Keep writing. Update your blog at least twice a week. Refer back to that introductory post from time to time to see if your posts are in sync with the goals you first set out for your blog. If they aren’t, consider acknowledging the shift in a post or adjust the focus of your content to get it back on track. And then get back to writing.

It really is that simple.

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Next up: Task #2: If you already have a blog, write a post that gets retweeted 20 times. Been there, done that and then some! (Well, only once, but that still counts, right?)

Written by Jennifer Gaie Hellum

July 7, 2010 at 2:23 am