Brand Me a Journalist

Using Social Media to Create a Professional Niche

Archive for June 2011

Journalism’s personal branding debate: Can you have a strong brand AND integrity?

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During the past week, seasoned journalists and renowned academics exchanged volleys over whether journalists should concern themselves with their personal brands. As someone who has spent the past year and a half blogging about personal branding for journalists, I felt compelled to weigh in and share how someone from the newest generation of journalists felt about this career management strategy.

The debate began when Medill School of Journalism student Leslie Trew Magraw requested to interview two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten about how he built his brand. Instead of discussing how he’d grown his reputation throughout his four-decade career, Weingarten used Leslie’s assignment to deliver an indictment of the media’s focus on marketing and the consumer’s influence on content. He then took a shot at the new generation of journalists for not being willing to work hard to earn their reputations:

Now, the first goal seems to be self-promotion — the fame part, the “brand.”

Many veteran journalists are very uncomfortable with the notion of a person having a brand, believing that focusing on marketing your talent automatically detracts from attention to your work and compromises your integrity. They came up in the business at a time when journalists didn’t have to worry about marketing their careers; producing good work and being associated with a reputable news organization was enough to “make a name for yourself.”

Not anymore.

For many journalists, the changing media landscape’s effect on employment dynamics – from long-term job security to professional nomadism – requires proactive management of their careers. Fortunately, having a career strategy and professional integrity and are not mutually exclusive, and it is from that perspective that I write about personal branding.

I have to believe those on both sides of the branding argument want the same thing: to make a living with integrity while doing a job they love. If we can rise above the branding versus reputation semantics and generational finger pointing, young professionals in all fields can benefit from journalism’s branding discussion as they seek to establish their careers.

Personal branding is fundamentally about how to distinguish yourself from those with whom you share general characteristics. That is to say, your brand is your intrinsically unique set of qualities that give you value. If you want the people with whom you interact professionally to see your singular value, you first have to be able to be aware of it yourself first:

Be authentic. Your personality, passions, life experiences, values system and beliefs inform the kind of work you naturally are drawn to. Use that knowledge of your core values as the foundation for your career decisions. Without that awareness, that compass to guide you, you won’t be able to determine whether an opportunity is a good fit. As an extroverted news junkie who’s happiest when I’m providing people with information they find useful, my working as a social media producer allows me to professionally be true to who I am and do so confidently and credibly.

Understand where your talent and skills lie and use them. Your brand is meaningless unless you produce quality work to support it, and that starts with knowing what you do well. Many resources are available to help you identify your intellectual strengths and natural talents. You may have figured that out a long time ago or may still be struggling to pinpoint your greatest asset. Taking aptitude tests and talent assessments helped me appreciate my interest in languages and affinity for storytelling that I’d taken for granted, which eventually led me to journalism.

Communicate effectively. All the passion, hard work and talent in the world won’t get you where you want to go if nobody knows about it. That’s why I’m writing my blog, participating in Twitter chats and connecting online. Knowing how to clearly and effectively share what you’re about as a person and an employee is the difference between being in the loop as opportunities arise and being left in the dark.

  • Reach out to colleagues at work, at events and online to learn more about your profession.
  • Make sure you can tell them what you have to offer that sets you apart from others.
  • Take advantage of tools such as blogs, portfolio sites and YouTube to create a digital footprint where you can express creatively express why you have value in your field.
  • Keep your online profiles up to date, making sure they collectively provide consistent information.
  • And finally, be smart about what you post on social networks and Twitter. Whether you consider it personal or professional, it all affects your brand.

These strategies don’t relieve you of the responsibility of hard work; in fact, they add to it. And when it’s done to build a personal brand authentically and competently, I don’t know how anyone could argue with that.

Written by Jennifer Gaie Hellum

June 30, 2011 at 12:20 am

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.