Evan Smith

The meaty sizzle of a 21st Century brand 5

Last Saturday, June 18, was the day that 2011 Medill graduates received their BSJ and MSJ degrees at a convocation on campus. This followed by a day Northwestern’s commencement ceremonies, which featured the advice of speaker Stephen Colbert (full text | 5-minute video): “You have been told to follow your dreams. But what if it’s a stupid dream?”

Evan Smith

Evan Smith addresses Medill's 2011 graduates

The speaker at Saturday’s event was the equally entertaining Evan Smith, editor and CEO of The Texas Tribune and a Medill alumnus himself. As is the wont of graduation speakers everywhere, he, too, provided advice to the assembly (video on this page), and about 9:30 into his speech he launched into it.

“First, build and burnish your personal brand, using Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and whatever other channels you can think of.  It used to be that having a personal brand was frowned upon. . . . Today, fragmented, frayed institutions realize – well, the smart ones realize – that powerful personal brands can reverberate upstream in very positive ways. . . .

“But forget about how your personal brand benefits your employer. Think about how it benefits you. It’s portable – goes everywhere you go, from place to place and job to job. You control it. You can be nimble and strategic and tactical attending to it, asking no one’s permission and no one’s blessing. And all the good things about you – your sense of humor, your charisma, your wisdom and your insight – are on display at all times for the world to see. It truly opens up all kinds of possibilities.”

At least one of the students on hand wasn’t too surprised.  She had interviewed Smith just weeks before for her final assignment in my course, “How 21st Century Media Work,” a class on economics, marketing, and technology and their evolving impact on journalism and the media. Students write a paper on how a journalist from their hometowns had, wittingly or not, built a personal brand; what its impact on the audience might be; and whether it would be desirable, or even possible, to replicate anything about that process.

The paper on Smith was a fine piece of reporting, writing, and research, as were many others written by my 39 students . . . like the one on Gene Weingarten, two-time Pulitzer winner from the Washington Post. But there was a difference: Weingarten didn’t much like the assignment.

In response to an initial inquiry, he explained, “You used the expression ‘built your personal brand.’ I want us to let that expression marinate in its own foulness for a moment, like a turd in a puddle of pee, as we contemplate its meaning and the devastating weight of its implications….” At his recommendation, the student included the text of his initial reply in her paper, for which he did grant a helpful interview.

As some of you know by now, this story doesn’t end there. Yesterday, Weingarten’s latest column hit washingtonpost.com: “How ‘branding’ is ruining journalism.” Addressed to my student, Leslie, the column goes to great lengths to explain the wrong-headedness of the idea, after first providing some utilitarian advice: “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.”

As I do tend to include a visual of a branding iron when introducing the concept to students, this was not particularly upsetting to me or to Leslie.

The column drew plenty of comment online, some of it from Steve Buttry of Journal Register, who blogged about it on “The Buttry Diary” with the headline, “Gene Weingarten knows branding (even though he scorns it).” Steve’s post led me to out myself as the professor in need of a sizzling personal branding experience, which in turn led him to ask Leslie Trew Magraw for permission to reprint her research paper; you can find it here.

As I mentioned in my own comment over on Steve’s blog, my students are prepared for the fact that their selected subject may never have engaged in intentional brand-building. They also know that more than a few will reject the very idea of their brand outright, as Gene did so entertainingly. I suspect that both interviewer and interviewee often find, as some of the commenters on The Buttry Diary are saying today, that this is in large part a disagreement over word choice and semantics.

Because, you know what? Paper after paper shows that effective personal branding turns out to be less about self-promotion and social networks than it is about accuracy, fairness and credibility. Whether the subject is a blogger in Portland, or a newspaper reporter in Kankakee, or a TV anchor in Florida, it turns out that the work creates the brand, and the brand then helps people find more of the work. Look at “brand” as shorthand or a shortcut, but don’t look away because you don’t like the word. That would be short-sighted.

That’s not the only way that 21st Century media work. But it’s a way that new journalists need to know, and to learn about through their own reporting. As Evan Smith said, “It truly opens up possibilities.” Or as Stephen Colbert put it, “Thankfully, dreams can change. If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses.”

June 25 update: Steve Buttry has used Storify to curate the many tweets, blog posts, and comments about this back-and-forth today on his blog. It’s well worth a read. Meanwhile, the firehose of Romenesko has been driving lots of traffic to both of our blogs over the last couple of days, and Leslie Magraw’s research paper is drawing a lot of links and comments.

About Owen Youngman

Professor Emeritus of Journalism and formerly Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development and director of interactive media, Chicago Tribune.