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A Fight in the Journalism World Invites Questions About Personal Branding & 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 feels 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 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.

Jennifer Gaie Hellum blogs at Brand Me a Journalist: Using Social Media to Create a Professional Niche. She is a recent graduate of Arizona State University’s Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where she was named Fall 2010 Outstanding Graduate Student. Jennifer currently works as a social media producer in Phoenix, Arizona.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • http://www.mediahelpingmedia.org/ Media Helping Media

    Agreed, it’s important that all journalists see themselves as a global media brand. I add this line to all my social media training. http://www.mediahelpingmedia.org/training-resources/social-networking/526-becoming-a-global-media-brand-in-60-minutes Good to raise the issue.

  • Anonymous

    Jennifer, you are quite articulate about personal brand and I appreciate what you wrote. As the lead author of Be Your Own Brand I would add a few thoughts to support your points. 1. Every journalist has a brand. A journalist’s brand defines the standards and style of the way they practice their trade. The brand is real and powerful when others’ perceptions of the journalist are an accurate reflection of their strengths. Most importantly a journalist’s brand gains strength when it is recognized for making a difference, not through self-promotion as a means to just be viewed as different. Strong admired brands are earned, not bought. 2) The salient question – Is the journalist getting credit for their competency and perspective so they get more opportunities for the assignments that enable them to become better at their specialty? Strong brands get access to opportunities that help their brands grow faster. 3) Your emphasis on authenticity and integrity cannot be underestimated.

    At the end of the day a brand is not what you say about yourself, it is the recognition that your distinctive qualities made a difference in a way that others did not achieved.

  • http://wonderlandornot.net Cooper

    I’m not a journalist, but what you say is unfortunately true, also unfortunate that a strong brand does not indicate quality. I believe that is the point he was trying to make, a valid point.

  • http://twitter.com/aubradley84 Brad Hilderbrand

    I worry about personal branding run amok, and how it is letting some folks who market themselves well but aren’t very talented get shots at the same opportunities as truly worthy people.

    For instance, a friend of mine recently interviewed for a job and discovered that a former subordinate was also interviewing from the same position. My buddy was the editor-in-chief at the old outlet, and the other person interviewing actually worked directly under me at the same website. My friend and I were both taken in by the guy’s clips and promised talents and gave him a job. We only found out after we hired him that he can’t really write, and the clips he submitted were the work of a great editor who had basically covered up all his mistakes. We fired they guy not long after.

    Now, this same scam artist is interviewing for a job at a pretty prestigious outlet, directly in competition against my friend, who’s a great writer. The two of us are both going to be pretty furious if the other guy gets the job, because he’s got no skill, he’s just great at building his “brand.”

    This is one of those times when I’m glad I no longer work in the world of writing and editing, as it seems like it’s more about marketing anymore than it is actual ability. The balance is definitely starting to tip the wrong direction.

    • http://jwschiff.tumblr.com Jaclyn Schiff

      Writing and editing is becoming a lot more about marketing, but just because we’re expecting writers to adopt new skills doesn’t mean the other stuff is less important… you still fired the bad writer because you need a solid product. You can market something all you want, but if it’s not very good, it will only get so far.

  • http://twitter.com/kaleighsomers kaleigh somers

    When I think of journalists and branding, I think, “Why not?” I’m a news editor at a college paper, and my co-editor and our assistant editor each have different areas they’re stronger in. Each of us has a strong suit, a niche. If you want a story written about you, you’re going to want someone who knows your industry and can do you justice. So why not put your personal brand out there? It seems like a no-brainer to me. I don’t think branding’s a new concept, but it’s got a new name. Before, beat writers were a big deal. I think it’s a similar idea.

  • http://twitter.com/iambeingnate Nate

    It’s unfortunate that this article makes no effort to address the ideas in its title. I understand the branding industry (much like the sensationalist news industry) sees nothing wrong in baiting with headlines, but no parts of this piece actually invite questions about the clashing industry perspectives. Where’s this discussion? I don’t see any discussion.

    You suggest rising above generational finger pointing, but quickly and dismissively change the subject to the benefits of self promotion and branding without any aspect of subject perspective or inclusion of counter-argument. Is this part of the new version and vision of journalism? To market yourself and your ideas regardless of the story? This isn’t journalism. This doesn’t do any service to the public, the greater good. This is just you branding, you marketing yourself and your blog.

    That’s what Gene Weingarten is arguing, that the new crop of journalists has lost sight of everything but self-promotion, has ignored their obligations, however small they may be, to readers. The new school isn’t really writing, they’re just producing content.

  • Pingback: Can you brand yourself? « Nesha Knows

  • http://pvcguttering.net Dimitrihouse

    We now live in a time when personal branding is essential. Those who feel it harms their integrity are simply going to be left behind.

  • Smithcake

    Many feel that self promotion in journalism detracts from the core role they perform and this is to provide quality media to the market. The reality today is that if you don’t put your best foot forward and market yourself, you risk getting left behind and in my view this is the case in all industries as we live in a competitive environment.
    The key is actually how self promotion is done and the core skill sets required to have a career in journalism must not be forgotten. So is personal and professional integrity jeopardized through self promotion by journalists?
    We define it as the concept of consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations, and outcomes. In ethics, integrity is regarded as the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions. Integrity can be regarded as the opposite of hypocrisy, in that it regards internal consistency as a virtue, and suggests that parties holding apparently conflicting values should account for the discrepancy or alter their beliefs.
    The Paul Henry example in New Zealand recently is a fine example of where a lack professional integrity did place pressure on the industry but overall he recovered well personally. Over the years Paul had created a “brand” on himself where he always took the risky options in order to attract a larger target audience. He did not care if he offended anybody as long as it sold a story. Paul’s mocking of an Indian Ministers surname in front of the nation was the final straw and he lost his job with TVNZ. Having said this, he is a very desirable employee as he had worked for years building the fundamental skills for the role. His brand was much defined but we cannot say he lacked professional integrity as he was honest and truthful to what he believed and he was definitely consistent.
    Jennifer raises that many veteran journalists are “uncomfortable with the notion of having a brand” as it compromises integrity and detracts from the work of a journalist. Historically it was not considered appropriate to push ones self against another so there was no need for anything other than the basic skill set to make a living. I disagree with this and believe this is due to the environment and times those veterans were raised. This would only be the case if the self promotion lacked truth or was specifically intended to deceive others in order to secure work. These days the competition for the same dollar is so fierce they have no option. The younger generations such as “Gen Y” type personalities are entering the market eager to take a slice of the pie. Competition is positive for the market as it results in a higher quality of output across the journalism industry. To be successful going forward journalists need to be the complete package and ensure they create a loyal following and to do this professional and personal integrity is critical and this is all about maintaining an honest, consistent outlook in whatever they produce both professionally and personally.
    Jennifer also comments that personal branding is the opportunity to differentiate you in the market and this is true. Personal and professional integrity play a large part in this as seen above with Paul Henry. A journalist should not fear creating a brand which will lead to no work as long as you respect the mediums and don’t use them to misrepresent or take advantage of. The journalism world is built on trust and what is read should be believed and not doubted.
    Social media is the fastest growing form of communication and the easiest to get us into trouble. We see examples of high profile journalists all the time posting criticisms & personal thoughts on sites such as Twitter and Facebook that land them in hot water. This is where personal and professional integrity cross and the public struggle to acknowledge that journalists may have personal views as well. In using the power of the job, it can and does get seen as abuse of the system which is a trap for new players.
    No industry has the shortcut for hard work and reputations are important also. If a journalist consistently communicates the truth, refuses the fabricate I feel they will naturally enjoy the best of everything. They will enjoy personal and professional integrity which will ensure business flows whatever the self brand they choose. We need variations of people out there keeping us informed and this will keep us interested. As long as it is honest.