By Sree Sreenivasan
DNAinfo Contributing Editor
It's important, now more than ever, for journalists to do all they can to make sure their work stands out in the crowd. One way journalists can achieve this is by making sure they're always thinking about personal branding.
In the old days, that is, say, 2005, the work of journalists spoke for itself. Reporters could go about doing their stories and, rest assured, the power and prestige of their respective media outlets was all that mattered.
However, times have rapidly changed and now there is an abundance media outlets, both old and new, fighting for the same audience.
Whenever I teach a class on personal branding or say "personal branding" out loud, the reaction I get depends largely on the demographics of whom I am talking to. Older journalists tend to shudder, or roll their eyes because this is not an idea they grew up with and they think its some sort of new-fangled, ridiculous notion cooked up in a school of marketing. Younger journalists instantly get it: their futures depend on their personal brands.
Here are my thoughts on personal branding:
1. Your brand could be one or more of many things. Here are some brands cultivated by journalists I know: "tenacious reporter who will make several extra calls to get the info she needs;" "expert on using Flash to tell stories;" "best resource in America on anything to do with Nepal."
2. Branding will happen even if you don't seek it out. You are being branded all the time as people observing you, your work, the way you conduct yourself, and are reaching conclusions about you, whether you like it or not. And the branding that others impose on you will follow you around.
3. Journalists should be crafting and curating their brand on a regular basis. You can do that by, above all, producing high quality work every day. You can specialize in certain topics, subject areas, or geographic area. You can build your expertise and share your knowledge. At DNAinfo, our reporter-producers are establishing their brands by focusing on a specific neighborhood. It's a work in progress and how successful they are will be decided in part by their readers' level of engagement with them.
4. Social media plays an important role. Instead of using sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to share the boring details of their lives, journalists can strategically use them to establish credibility and authority, pointing to useful, relevant materials online and off. They can use services like YouTube, Flickr as well as bookmarking tools like Digg, Delicio.us and StumbleUpon to share materials that reinforce their interest in a specific topic. I also recommend that folks create or update their Google Profile and try out some of the "instant branding" tools created by Jeremy Caplan.
5. There are major downsides of focusing on branding. It's important to not let all this branding talk get out of control. Focusing on it too much means you aren't focusing on the tasks at hand or making sure you keep the job you have. Here are some good tips from personal branding expert (yes, there is such a thing) Dan Schawbel.
6. There's a thin line between aspirational branding and being an arrogant fool. Recently I winced when saw someone call himself a "social-media thought leader." Other people should call you a thought leader. It's not a brand you can give yourself. You have to earn brands like that.
7. The biggest test of your brand is the simplest of all. Do people return your calls, respond to your text messages, your IMs, your @mentions on Twitter?
Here are some thoughts on personal branding compiled from my Facebook friends (with last names removed).
Adam: Work very very hard to capture your uniqueness. And if you're one of those multi-talented, multi-faceted journalists, remember, you can create unique brands for unique audiences/markets.
[At a] Knight training workshop at UC Berkeley that I'm in this week, Dwell Magazine's President Michela O'Connor Abrams discussed the importance of extending a brand. For her, it's about finding a voice — not just with content creation, but also with curation. Then, the key as you reach out to new platforms is to keep that voice authentic.
Jason: Use the same name across all social networks (Facebook, Twitter, personal website etc). I think full names are best but consistency is the key.
Try to add value to others. Obvious idea, but the point here is that it's easier than ever to find people frustrated, confused and in search of answers. If you can help them, they'll remember you.
Heather: Your brand can be about the subject you cover if it's very niche (I know a freelancer who's brand is all about the Jersey Shore), but it doesn't have to be. More than what you do, I think a brand is about how you do it. My brand is "Writing with a human face" — a journalism cliché to be sure, but also a fact: What I love most about my job and what I excel at is finding hard-to-find human faces for complex medical and other stories. I can apply this still to health, real estate, business and pop culture stories.
It has another meaning, though: That I keep the editor in mind in my work, too. The face also belongs to him or her.
So I encourage writers to complete this sentence: "I specialize in...." If you can't complete that sentence, do some brainstorming on it. Mine is, "I specialize in telling complex stories through the inspiring stories of real-life people."
I agree that a writer should have a tag line. I also think that some of the brand is out of a writer's control: Your brand is a combination of what you project yourself to be and how your editors perceive you. If the two don't match up, your brand won't get any purchase (literally and figuratively) in your clients' minds.
Catherine: In terms of personal branding cons, I'd be worried about getting myself stuck in a niche. When I applied for my current job as a features journalist, I was asked why I would want to write style and culture stories when my previous position was at financial news publication. This came as a surprise because it never occurred to me that employers might think that the skills you pick up writing financial features can't be applied to other beats.
On the flip side, I worry that having a bunch of beats on my resume makes me look like I'm flighty. I personally think that having experience in different areas enhances my reporting skills in general, but I'm also aware that it doesn't always give the impression that I'm a focused person with a specialized skill set — and of course, when you are pitching something or applying for a job, first impressions count a lot (which is why I'm a fan of personal branding, no matter what it's drawbacks may be).
Every Monday, DNAinfo contributing editor Sree Sreenivasan shares his observations about the changing media landscape.