Friday, April 13, 2012

To brand or not to brand

In seventh grade, my teacher assigned us to write a two-page essay on the question, "Who are you?" After a very pained philosophical journey that would today be considered super emo, I settled on answering the paper in two words: "I am."

She failed me. She said I had not followed instructions, and she thought I was copping out. But gosh darn it, even today, I still think I was right.

As my middle-school identity crisis (who didn't have one?) taught me, you are the only one who can define yourself. Others may not like it or agree with it as it applies to their own personal definition of who they are or who they want you to be. But however you consciously (or unintentionally) answer the question, "Who are you?" shapes all of your choices, creations and interactions. (Or is it the other way around?)

So what about at work? How important is it for a journalist to brand his or herself? Is it important to create a recognizable voice? Image? Is it good marketing, unnecessary, unprofessional, discrediting or appealing? 

Ultimately, this is the same question that my middle-school teacher asked. But unlike her, I'm not pretending I know the right two-page, double-spaced answer for everyone. 

Today, I did two work-related photo shoots: One in the newsroom for a new mug shot and a Lois Lane-themed one in a studio (with for the flag of this blog.

I'm sure some old-school journalists are groaning and punching walls at this idea. 

Obviously, I'm a branded reporter. I'm calling myself the "modern Lois Lane," for God's sake. I write a fashion column and a fitness column, which are plagued with personal stuff, including by not limited to details about: my uterus, my daughter, when I got lice in sixth grade, my love of transvestites, my addiction to lipstick and how I would rather set my feet on fire than wear Crocs.

Could this affect my ability to accurately report on the other half of my job, writing news features? Oh, yes. Especially if I had to write about the Crocs store closing because of a lice outbreak among transvestites. But that doesn't mean that the "unbiased" reporter who covers the story didn't also contract these highly contagious, itchy little buggers in elementary school, too. The difference is you know my bias up front, and you can brace for it.

Is that better? Not necessarily. It's just different. 

As one journalism professor wrote on, "A journalist's identity has always been a part of the job, otherwise why have bylines?"

I couldn't touch this topic without drawing in good ol' Gene Weingarten. He wrote last summer in the Wash Post that he thinks branding is ruining journalism. 

Newspapers are desperate for attention amid the shifting shapes of media, leading us to sometimes act like a 2-year-old when a new baby is brought home from the hospital. Impulsively. Sometimes we sulk, resent and refuse to acknowledge the changes. Then we throw a stinky tantrum and throw rocks. This is my metaphor, not Gene's. Although he does insinuate this root of branding is attention-seeking.

The problem, as he sees is, is we are giving readers what we think they want, not what they need. And the problem with that, as I see is, it the assumption that we know better than our readers what they need. And isn't that presumption, in and of itself, agenda-pushing and branded? Furthermore, how is it less noble to brand an individual journalist than an entire newspaper?

Weingarten says it's the messed priorities: First, self-promotion. Second, reporting.

But I think priorities are shaped by motives. If your goal is to become famous, of course self-promotion will cheapen your career -- but then that attitude would show up in your ability to report and write, too. But if your end goal is to best serve the readers, branding yourself can help you connect with them.

If done right, with savvy, consciousness and intelligence (ahem, I am not claiming I know how to do this), being a recognizable face can enhance reporting. People like people. They tend to tell more things to Real People than they do machines or masks. This can mean story tips or invitations to events that would otherwise be a closed door (like this "full moon party" I got invited to).

As an employee, personal branding shows your value, Steve Buttry writes. He also provides a great list of strategies for journalists who are trying to create their brand.

As he writes, "Journalism has an ethic of 'objectivity' that pushes us to pretend we are objects, not people. And you can't develop a personal brand without being a person and being seen as one." 

After all, the question is who are you? Not what. And as the annoying adage goes, choosing not to define something is, in and of itself, a definition.

I recently posed the question of branding on my Facebook page. Here are some of the replies: 

From a reader: Well they would probably tell you in journalism school (I did a year, and they did) that you have to be removed from the work and show a balanced account of things. But this is BS. No journalist does that. Plus, we can't remove ourselves from situations... this is one of the powerful insights of the Post Modern paradigm. It acknowledges that if you read a text, and I read the same text, we are going to walk away with two different impressions/readings because we bring all our life experiences into our interaction with a text. 
Thus: I think it is more honest to acknowledge one's bias .... which is happening more these days... 'in the interest of full disclosure...' and I really respect that. It is refreshing and needs to happen more. Journalists need to ditch the lie of objectivity and begin to acknowledge how their life informs their work.

From a former reporter:
I think your image comes from how you treat and interact with people as well as the clarity, accuracy and creativity - hopefully tasteful - in your reporting. Beyond that, reporting becomes editorializing and may as well be a column or blog. Readers expect only the facts in articles and opinions and personality in columns and blogs; if reporters are continually crossing that line, then their opinion comes across as fact to unsuspecting readers, and it's no longer objective and fair reporting.

From a reporter: 
I now refer to myself as "DJ Boom!" and have a logo associated with my brand. DJ Boom! is kinda' Boulder yogi, kinda' microbeer-swilling twit (but a pleasing and ironic "nerd" twit), kinda' faux-surfer, kinda' veganish twit (see above), kinda' good ol' dad, kinda' doting husband. The DJ Boom! brand is going to take me places!

What do you think?


  1. I think with ANY career these days, branding and marketing are necessities. You'll get lost in the noise if you don't have an overall image that grabs attention. The old adage about judging book covers is TRUE. We shouldn't, but our inclination is to make a snap judgment based on something visual.

  2. I'd say all the great journalists out there have branded themselves. If you think of which journalists ARE well-known or well-respected, it's usually due to a distinctive voice or a reporting style that is incredibly strong and unique. And you, my dear, have a very distinctive and wonderful writing voice. You are branded just by being you - and having the type of voice you have. And if you get to wear those awesome shoes by branding, then I think I somehow need to brand MYSELF. :-)