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Why Brian Williams’ problem isn’t his having a personal brand

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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.