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