Social Media and the Clash of Brands

MUD day 10:

On his new blog today, UK journalist Tony Hallett considered a question raised indirectly by my Tuesday post on destination versus identity. His concern was with personal identity versus publication identity, or, if you prefer, personal versus corporate branding.

In traditional print or broadcast media, the corporate brand controls the personal brand—except in a few rare cases, writers are expected to adapt their voice to that of their venue, and publication editors make sure that happens. But as he noted, social media largely defies such control. Like it or not, social media tends to emphasize personal identity and to amplify personal voice.

This is a tricky issue for media organizations. On the one hand, they want to encourage the individual voices of their contributors. On the other, they don’t want to be eclipsed by them. It’s still true, as Hallett put it, that the corporate brand has the final say. But as traditional forms of media morph increasingly into new, more social forms, this may change. In chats, live blogging, and other types of instant publishing, there is no active editorial control, no formal restraint on the personal voice.

The conflict might be even more problematic for content marketers than for independent publishers. Traditional publishing brands have always been perceived, to a degree, as the sum of their individual voices. That’s not the case, I think, for most product and service brands. To control the corporate brand message, must the individual voice be restrained?

In any event, as the atomization of media proceeds, the individual voice will get louder. Media venues may become something more like an ever-shifting alliance of individuals than a stable and unitary identity. The tribe, perhaps, will supplant the brand.

The Perils of Corporate-Personal Twitter Names

In a post today on The Wall, Tom Callow addressed the tricky question of ownership of journalists’ Twitter accounts. If employees use a Twitter ID that combines their names with those of their employers’ brands, whose account is it? The issue is more complicated than you might think, and isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon.  Until journalists and their employers alike see Twitter and other social media accounts as equivalent in importance to other brand channels and manage them accordingly, the friction will only increase.Laura Kuennsberg on Twitter

What prompted Callow’s post was the news last month that the BBC’s departing chief political correspondent Laura Kuenssberg, soon to join BBC’s rival ITV, has renamed her Twitter account from “@BBCLauraK” to “@ITVLauraK.” Along with its reporter, the BBC has now lost her 60,000 Twitter followers as well.

As Callow noted in a previous and prescient post on ownership of Twitter names, there are essentially three account-naming options for someone who tweets in connection with an employer:

  1. Tweet under a corporate name, like @comcastcares.
  2. Tweet under a personal name, like @johnbethune.
  3. Tweet under a hybrid name that combines personal and corporate brands, like @BBCLauraK.

There’s little controversy about the first option—it’s obviously a corporate brand that no sensible individual would claim. The second might seem so clearly personal that, as Callow says, “there is no way a brand could seek to claim ownership of such a profile.”

The third option—both personal and corporate—may turn out to be a rich field for litigation. If ownership isn’t specified by contract, can either employer or employee say with authority who owns the Twitter handle? Or who, more specifically, owns the right to its followers? Kuenssberg clearly believes she does. By changing the name of the account, she may not be claiming ownership of the hybrid name, but her assumption appears to be that she owns the account. Callow, however, thinks the BBC has a “decent ownership claim” to it. To judge from the fascinating variety of comments on his post, there is little consensus either way. (And the BBC itself, so far as I can determine, has raised no objections.)

In her coverage of the matter last month, The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss rightly remarked that “setting up an account that blends professional and personal is a risky move.” But blending the professional and personal is exactly what social media is all about. If a brand wants to remain relevant, and its editors want to have successful careers, both sides will have to come to terms with that risk and learn to manage it.

The first step might be to think of a Twitter account not as a marketing tool or some supplementary appendage to a publication, but as a separate channel for the brand in the same way a magazine is. Now suppose that a publisher named a magazine after one of its editors—the John Bethune magazine, say. I can guarantee you that the editor, in this case at least, would negotiate a detailed agreement on the use of and the rights to his name. I’m certain Readers Digest and Rachael Ray did just that when launching Every Day with Rachael Ray (thanks to @Glenn1126 for the real-life example).

A Twitter account should be treated the same way. While extensive contract negotiations over a hybrid Twitter name would be overkill, both editor and employer should come to a clear agreement about who owns what rights. A smart employer will not claim all of them. Without some ownership, an employee won’t be inclined to put heart and soul into it. By the same token, a wise employee will understand that part of the appeal of a hybrid identity comes from the employer’s brand, and that the employer should have meaningful rights as well.

That’s one less-than-elegant solution. A better one, I think, is this: don’t use hybrid Twitter names. Like a magazine, a Twitter account needs a clear and unambiguous identity. Brands that want total control can use functional names like @BBCPoliticalCorr, as one of Callow’s commenters suggested. Brands that want the greatest value from Twitter accounts will give up control and encourage the use of personal accounts. Trying to have it both ways is a sure way of getting neither.

Does Danger Lurk in the Language of Social Media?

No writer can become good at the craft without being sensitive to language. But in other contexts, that vocational advantage can be a liability. This seems to be true of many journalists who resist the benefits of new media solely because of the language used to describe them. When they hear words like user instead of reader, branding instead of reputation, or content instead of editorial, their writerly instincts tell them that accepting such language would be a sellout to the corporate world.

They’ve got it wrong, of course. But we should not be too quick to dismiss their reactions. They may be on to something. If the language of new media is so prone to misinterpretation, is it not also dangerously vulnerable to manipulation?

That was the lesson I took from Gene Weingarten’s criticism last month of the new-media concept of personal branding. When the Washington Post columnist wrote that branding is ruining journalism, he set off a barrage of rejoinders from personal-branding advocates, most notably and prolifically Steve Buttry.

Replying to a journalism student who had written to ask how he had built his personal brand, Weingarten offered a scathing but eloquently funny response:

“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 Buttry points out, it’s clear that Weingarten in fact has no objection to the concept represented by the phrase “personal brand.” What he objects to, rather, is its intimation of commercialism, that it’s turning individuals into “Cheez Doodles.” As he put it, “We are slowly redefining our craft so it is no longer a calling but a commodity. From this execrable marketing trend arises the term you ask me about: ‘branding.’”

Ironically, the idea behind personal branding is just the opposite: taking a depersonalized commodity—the average byline, say—and showing the human face behind it.  It is, really, a revolutionary concept. A word like reputation just won’t do to describe it. As Buttry says in a subsequent post on new-media buzzwords, “Life is always changing, and journalism is certainly changing swiftly. Why should we use inadequate and inaccurate old words and phrases to describe the changes?”

But while I’m firmly on Buttry’s side in this debate, I worry nonetheless about the vulnerable duality of much new-media vocabulary. There is, I suspect, a troubling nub of validity in Weingarten’s reaction to it that should sound a note of caution for all of us new-media enthusiasts.

If on the one hand social media has co-opted the language of corporations and humanized it, there is an equal likelihood that corporations will try to do the same to the language of new media. In the blink of an eye the emphasis in the phrase personal branding can shift from humanizing a brand to branding a human.

Similarly, I worry about a phrase like content marketing. When Joe Pulizzi talks about it, I’m ready to leap onto the barricades with him and raise the banner for personalizing and equalizing the relationship with customers through great editorial. But how many corporations will see it only as another tool for trapping yet more leads into the ever-ravenous sales funnel?

If a writer as sensitive to the subtleties of words as Weingarten can mistake the meaning of personal branding, the risk that ruder corporate ears will do the same is high. Will the social media revolution be co-opted? I don’t think so. But its benefits will be slow in coming if its language remains ambiguous.  Proponents of new media probably can’t change that language, but they can do the next best thing: constantly and consistently define its key terms.

Be Yourself. Just Not Your Real Self: Scripps’ Muddled Social Media Policy

If you need any confirmation that legacy publishers just don’t get social media, give the new social media policy from E.W. Scripps a glance. As summarized by Jay Rosen, the message Scripps is sending to its employees is

“Be afraid. Be very, very afraid. Got it? Good! Now go out there and kick some social media ass.”

Nowhere is Scripps’ muddled thinking more evident than in the fuzzy and constantly shifting distinctions the policy makes between personal Twitter accounts and what it calls “professional” accounts. In effect, it drains the life out of both.

It’s reasonable for a company to say, “Look, if you tweet using one of our corporate or branded Twitter accounts, remember you’re speaking for us too.” But Scripps talks not about corporate or branded accounts, but about professional ones. Why? I’d guess because they want to have it both ways. They want their employees to be personal and authentic on Twitter—just not too personal or authentic.

What that means, of course, is they have to limit what their staff can think of as “personal” on their personal Twitter accounts. You can only talk about your “personal life” with “friends or others with similar interests that aren’t work related.” If you’re a sports writer, no problem, right? Your friends never want to talk about sports.

And if you happen to tweet on your personal account about something Scripps deems to be work-related, they “own the right to that work product.” So if you’re a lifestyle columnist who writes in a Scripps paper about your family, guess what? Mention your kids on your personal account and Scripps owns them.

The distinctions Scripps wants to draw get even more muddled when the policy gets into best practices. Be professional, it urges, then immediately adds that “the Internet has blurred the line between public and private, personal and professional.” But never mind that, you must always appear “reasoned, professional, and knowledgeable.” I.e., a stiff.

But then the policy advises, “make it a conversation.” You need to “be real and personable,” and to “bring in your own personality.” In other words, be yourself—just not your real self.

What Scripps doesn’t get is that you can’t have it both ways. Yes, the online world has toppled the barriers between personal and professional. If you don’t like it, you only have one choice: stay offline.

Nine Keys to a Robust Editorial Career in Social Media

For B2B journalists and editors, the transition to the social-media era can be daunting, especially if they rely on their employers to lead the way. As an ASBPE-Medill survey of B2B editors showed last April, traditional publishing companies have offered little new-media training or guidance.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Social media is in part about the empowerment of individuals, and if publishers are letting their employees go it alone, so much the better. Stepping into the breach, the American Society of Business Press Editors has worked to ease the transition to a social-media world by, among other efforts, sponsoring a number of Webinars for B2B editors on this and related topics. As part of my presentation in their most recent event, held last month, I identified the following nine tactics B2B journalists can use to take control of their careers in the new-media era.

1. Be media neutral.

Unless your goal is to become a museum piece, you will need to be open to all types of media. Your background may be in print, but you must stop thinking of yourself as a print person. In the social-media era, people expect to interact with editors and journalists in a variety of media. If you aren’t yet comfortable with things like podcasting or screen captures or video blogs, you should start investigating them now. If your employer isn’t interested in supporting you in this effort, then do it on your own time.

2. Be employer neutral.

Just as you need to open yourself up to different types of media, you should also be open to different types of employers. In a world where everyone’s a publisher, you don’t have to work for a traditional B2B publisher to be a B2B journalist. There’s potentially a role for you in any B2B enterprise, and not in doing PR or traditional marketing work, but in practicing straight journalism.

One journalist who’s already experienced this shift is the well-known B2B editorial consultant and blogger Paul Conley. In a recent blog post, he noted a dramatic change in the source of his work. Less than a year ago, he said, “most of my income derived from traditional publishers practicing traditional B2B journalism.” Today, though, he works entirely for commercial concerns, creating, as he puts it elsewhere, “pure editorial that is, in and of itself, a lead-gen tool”.

3. Be an entrepreneur.

It there’s any potential employer you shouldn’t be neutral about, it’s you. Even if your paycheck comes from someone else, you are ultimately working for yourself. So start thinking of yourself as an entrepreneur. Initiative, creativity, and passion are central to making yourself valuable in social media. As it happens, those are the exact traits that entrepreneurs need to succeed as well.  If burdened with an old-media mentality, your employer may not appreciate entrepreneurship–but that road to nowhere is all the more reason why you have to practice it whenever and wherever you can.

4. Be a brand.

In the social-media world, being entrepreurial means managing yourself and your career as if they were a brand. By now, most B2B journalists have heard of the concept of personal branding, and the majority of those are probably still uncomfortable with it. By their nature, editors tend to be fairly cynical about marketing and branding. But in social media, as Gary Vaynerchuk has said, there’s no avoiding it: “Everyone—EVERYONE—needs to start thinking of themselves as a brand. It is no longer an option; it is a necessity.” To be effective in social media, you have to be in control of your identity. Thinking of yourself as a brand is one way to achieve that control.

5. Be a social-media marketer.

Of course, to nurture your brand, you have to market it. And you do that through the social web. You’ve probably heard the horror stories about people leaving compromising or questionable information about themselves on the Web that ends up damaging their job prospects. What that means, of course, is that the opposite is true as well: The record you leave on the social Web can benefit you just as much as it can hurt you.

To quote Vaynerchuk one more time: “Your latest tweet and comment on Facebook and most recent blog post? That’s your résumé now.” This is one reason the ranks of LinkedIn have been swelling of late, and why you should sign up if you haven’t already.

6. Be a social-media networker.

To be clear: the point of social-media marketing is not simply to promote yourself. It is really about taking part in a conversation by collaboratively participating in networks. To do this, you will need to actively embrace social networking tools. Although LinkedIn is the most obvious one for business purposes, Twitter and Facebook may be more valuable, depending on the industries you’re involved in.

At the very least, you should be networking with at least two groups: other journalists and media people, and one or more of the industries you cover. And within those industries, you should be connecting with both readers and advertisers.

7. Be a blogger.

In addition to using networking tools, you should also be blogging. Junta42’s Joe Pulizzi puts it bluntly: “I don’t hire anyone that doesn’t blog.” While that may be an extreme position, there’s no question that blogging experience is becoming a de facto requirement for B2B job applicants.

It’s not enough, though, if you simply blog on your employer’s site or Twitter account. You should own at least one blog and Twitter account of your own, and use them regularly. That’s a key not only to developing your own brand, but to keeping it intact when you leave one employer for another or go out on your own.

8. Be an author.

Although not essential, a brilliant way to build your brand is to write and publish a book. If that sounds daunting, it shouldn’t. Writing and publishing a book these days doesn’t require hiring an agent and finding a publisher. There are plenty of tools to do it yourself. And it doesn’t require hundreds of pages. You can put together an e-book of 30 or 40 pages, distribute it on your blog, and get many of the benefits of traditional book publishing. One accessible and inspiring model is A Brief Guide to World Domination, a personal manifesto by  blogger Chris Guillebeau. While he wrote it to help others achieve their goals, it has earned him enormous career-building exposure as well.

9. Be uniquely essential.

Finally, in whatever you do, you should strive to be someone who’s uniquely essential to your business—what Seth Godin calls a linchpin. As he told Michael Hyatt  in an interview after the publication of Linchpin, “Cogs see a job, linchpins see a platform. Every interaction, every assignment is a chance to make a change, a chance to delight or surprise or to touch someone.” If you see what you do as a job, you’re replaceable—and your career prospects aren’t so hot. But if you see your work as a platform for achievement—even if you don’t always fulfill it—you will be indispensable.  In the social-media era, true success comes not from fulfilling your job description but by adding value.