Personal Branding in a Service Industry

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Businesswoman Giving a PresentationRecently, the PRBC crew had the pleasure of chiming in—as an entire group via Google Documents—on a series of questions regarding the blending of public relations and social media (one of my favorite subjects to discuss) on Lauren Fernandez’s LAF blog. The first set of questions dealt with what effect we all thought social media has had on the public relations industry.

You can read all of our responses here, but a comment by our good friend Jay Keith really sparked something in me. Jay was discussing his distaste for the exponential increase in so-called “experts” who are now online.

What follows is a section of my response to Jay’s comment:

Thanks, Jay, for the spot-on assessment of many within the PR/marketing/advertising space either branding themselves or being branded by their “followers” as gurus/experts/rockstars/superstars. Here’s the thing: They’re not any of those because the last time I read/heard/remember, those of us in the PR/marketing/advertising/social media work in service industries, which means we are here to help OTHERS become rockstars. Not us.

I don’t think any of us should even have that idea in our head that we want to become the next big thing because we shouldn’t be working toward that. We should be working toward building our clients and our organization into the next big thing. I would imagine if we all focused more on that, and began to get away from building our own personal brand (I honestly hate the term “personal brand”), then in the long run, people would notice our work, we would stand out naturally, and our “rockstar” status would build organically from there.

Expanding on those thoughts some more: Somehow, through the good graces of the social Web, many have forgotten a central tenet of being an employee for someone: You are there to produce fantastic, high-quality work for your company, it clients, customers, etc. Not necessarily for yourself.

There are many, many great opportunities to build your “personal brand”—if you want to call it that—by joining professional organizations, becoming a public speaker or networking at both professional and personal events.

But if you’re primary thought when building and executing campaigns for your company or its clients is how it will help turn you into a rockstar, and not how it will help your business or that of your clients, you’re frankly being selfish, and you’re also not really working as a true service professional. You’re working as a ME professional. And if that’s the case, then it’s time to get out of the service industry and strike it on your own. Nothing wrong with that. Just realize early on who you are really trying to help: Your company and its clients, or yourself.

For more insight into the many problems of building your “personal brand,” check out David Spinks’ great posts about the topic here, here and here.

So why do you think we are so easily granting this “rockstar/guru/expert” status on many within the digital space? Do you get as offended as I do when people start calling themselves “experts” even when they are working for others?

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  • mikeschaffer

    Great topic and really interesting insight here, Keith (and Jay!).

    I think, in some ways, publicists are playing major amounts of “catch-up” when it comes to online identities.

    We are used to pulling together a media list and sending out a release – not to mention making follow-up calls and e-mails – all part of relationship building.

    It is our nature to figure out who is influential…that is how we help our clients the most.

    Unlike “real life,” where our company names may (or may not) carry weight with media, we have to earn that for ourselves in the digital world.

    I view social media as having two components: content and connections. Good content is vital, but connections is critical.

    Building a personal identity allows us to grow our network, providing connections that allow us to help our clients best.

    Right now, besides my own online presence, I manage that of my agency, as well as three clients (while consulting on others).

    Before I could best advise my clients, I needed to experiment with my identity to see what concepts worked.

    I don't disagree with the obnoxious amount of “gurus” and “experts,” (should we set a standard?) but I just wanted to shed some light on why it's important to spend time getting familiar with the technology before representing clients.

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  • keithtrivitt

    Mike – Thanks so much for pointing out some very astute points in terms of needing to understand the technology and trends you are advising to clients and organizations before you start recommending something. You're exactly right in that regard, as we need to understand the technology BEFORE we recommend anything.

    However, I think the word “understand” is key there. Notice, neither of us have said that we need to be the CENTER of attention or of the technology. I don't think those of us in a service industry should ever be at the center of something if we are serving others. To me, that goes against the giving back nature of this business. We are here to serve others, and yes, while it is important that we experiment in how to do this, I don't believe we should make it a point to use what we recommend to our own personal advantage.

  • http://www.studentbranding.com/ Dan Schawbel

    I agree and disagree with this post Keith. In general, everyone has to serve others to be in business because that is how money is exchanged (your manager, your customer/client, etc). The consultants or workers will the largest brands will attract more and better clients though, which means you have to be a great marketer/brand and be able to translate that into business value.

  • keithtrivitt

    Dan – Thanks for chiming in on this. Greatly appreciated. I certainly agree with you that the consultants or workers with larger brands will attract better clients, but at the same time, does that mean YOU have to be the brand? I'm not so sure about that. It all goes back to what Mike had to say about about understanding and embracing the technology and branding tactics that you are recommending to others, but I don't believe you should use those tactics to build yourself bigger than the brands you represent. Once you do that, I think you are doing a dis-service to your clients and organization.

    Thanks again for chiming in. Great to read some insight from a very knowledgeable source in this field!

  • http://twitter.com/willjwoo Jordan Woo

    This is a great topic that I think needs to be addressed more often. How easily do we get caught up with the “personal branding” monster within our respective industries?

    To answer Keith’s question, yes. The self-proclaimed experts do offend me. Experts? Really? How can you be an expert at something that is less than 5 years old? Everyone knows that we’re seeing the infancy of social media. Keith also makes a good point. If you are an expert, why don’t you have your own agency or firm? It’s because most us wouldn’t know how to run it successfully. We lack the necessary experience.

    It doesn’t matter how much you’ve learned about social media from Chris Brogan or Brian Solis, they can’t teach you how to operate in a business environment. Reading a blog isn’t the same as having first-hand work experience. We need to realize that even though we might have a better understanding of social media than our employers, we need them to bring us along just as much as they need us to bring them up to speed. I just don’t see how we can consider ourselves experts yet.

  • @jaykeith

    I'd be remiss if I didn't weigh in here, obviously. First, appreciate Keith's very nice shout out, but more importantly, the topic. I think that it's a good one. I completely agree that PR needs to be a “in the background” profession for the most part. I'm all for sharing insights, case studies, and real world examples of how you've helped your clients get exposure and great results with your peers and others via SM. I think that no one is better at this than Scott Monty at Ford. He's a very reluctant “celebrity” and always defers to the great products, teams, etc. That's how it should be. Is it ok to be out there and in the “spotlight” helping others while promoting the company you're representing? Of course, that helps both you and your client win. But my problem comes with self promoting blowhards who really haven't done much (or shown that they've done much) and are instead just spouting off the classic “if you're not doing this, you should be, because you're missing out.” Ok I get it, I should be utilizing SM, but how about giving me a roadmap, or some real life examples, rather than vague references and hints? I find that all too often that's what you get from many of the self proclaimed “experts.” And the problem is, sometimes perception is reality – if they get enough people to follow them and buy into the fact that they are in fact “experts” then voila, they are. That's another negative by product of SM.

    The basic premise of PR will always be the same – you get results for your clients or company, and you try your best to stay out of the way. I think that SM has given many PR people an avenue to get some credit and praise lavished upon them, something they have desperate craved for a long time. From my standpoint, that's a negative, and Keith's point is a valid one, if you're serving yourself and not your client, you're not doing your job. You should be making them famous, not yourself, even if it is “in the process.” The second we lose sight of that is the moment we stop being effective at what it is we're supposed to be doing – focusing on the brand that pays us, not our “own.”

  • BGleas

    This is a great topic. I think it's similar to the struggle we're seeing in the media these days. Are they reporting the story or are they the story?

    You see it especially in politics and sports media. PTI and the spin-offs it's produced are a perfect example. The media, similar to PR Pros, are more inclined to be the story these days, it's the shift in the landscape we're seeing right now. Right, or wrong, it's the way we're moving.

    I do find it uncomfortable and awkward at times though, because I was taught, like many of you, that I should be in the background as a PR person. But, the question is, as a PR person, if you're not branding yourself, are you falling behind?

  • keithtrivitt

    Jordan – Great point about the fact that just because you're a so-called “expert,” that doesn't mean you necessarily know how to run or succeed with a business. This reminds me of the season finale of Mad Men last week where they decide to break off and create their own ad agency, but quickly realize that despite how talented they are in their respective areas of expertise, and despite the fact that Don Draper essentially is the forward-facing “brand” of Sterling Cooper, no one has any clue how to actually run a business. The only one who does is Pryce, who by most estimations has never even thought of his personal brand, as he was always a cog within a larger machine, but he did know how to very effectively run a company.

    And you're right: We need others in place who aren't so concerned with building their own brand, but are concerned with building and enhancing the brand and reputation of their company, as well as that of their clients. That balance – and it is certainly a tricky one to maintain – is what can be the difference maker between very successful service agencies and just mediocre ones.

    Thanks for chiming in.

  • keithtrivitt

    Jay – First, thanks for giving me the inspiration for this post. Obviously, you and I have similar opinions on this subject.

    I do find a lot of value in what you say about staying out of the way of the enhancement of our clients' businesses. Certainly, we play a major factor in that enhancement, but I think we can all cite instances where some within PR/marketing/advertising have actually done a disservice to their clients by trying to somehow make themselves a part of the story.

    Fact is, our story is best told when our names are never mentioned in a story. That's when I believe we know we did something right. It's when your name starts getting out there for some reason or other than you should worry.

  • keithtrivitt

    Fantastic question on that last part about if you're a PR person, are you falling behind if you're not branding yourself.

    I honestly don't know that answer, although my comments above and in this post may lean otherwise.

    So let's open this up to others: If you're in PR/marketing/advertising, are you falling behind if you're not branding yourself?

  • @jaykeith

    This is also a great point. News organizations are actually showcasing the personalities giving us the news (including newspapers, magazines, TV outlets, etc.) rather than the actual story. In this way, the real news and objectivity gets lost. It's kind of like the “getting mine” mentality. It's not enough just to break a good story like Woodward and Bernstein anymore, you have to break the story first, then be on every news show in America talking about how you broke it, and more importantly, what YOUR take on the news is. That's now what reporting is about, and it's not what PR is about either. In this way, with SM making “celebrities” out of all of us, it's getting us further and further away from the ground rules of the professions, and that's a shame. It's almost like you can't help but wanting to be in the spotlight, and have your 15 minutes of fame. And that's why the media (and PR in some ways) in general is taking a real turn for the worse in my opinion.

  • mikeschaffer

    Great topic and really interesting insight here, Keith (and Jay!).

    I think, in some ways, publicists are playing major amounts of “catch-up” when it comes to online identities.

    We are used to pulling together a media list and sending out a release – not to mention making follow-up calls and e-mails – all part of relationship building.

    It is our nature to figure out who is influential…that is how we help our clients the most.

    Unlike “real life,” where our company names may (or may not) carry weight with media, we have to earn that for ourselves in the digital world.

    I view social media as having two components: content and connections. Good content is vital, but connections is critical.

    Building a personal identity allows us to grow our network, providing connections that allow us to help our clients best.

    Right now, besides my own online presence, I manage that of my agency, as well as three clients (while consulting on others).

    Before I could best advise my clients, I needed to experiment with my identity to see what concepts worked.

    I don't disagree with the obnoxious amount of “gurus” and “experts,” (should we set a standard?) but I just wanted to shed some light on why it's important to spend time getting familiar with the technology before representing clients.

  • keithtrivitt

    Mike – Thanks so much for pointing out some very astute points in terms of needing to understand the technology and trends you are advising to clients and organizations before you start recommending something. You're exactly right in that regard, as we need to understand the technology BEFORE we recommend anything.

    However, I think the word “understand” is key there. Notice, neither of us have said that we need to be the CENTER of attention or of the technology. I don't think those of us in a service industry should ever be at the center of something if we are serving others. To me, that goes against the giving back nature of this business. We are here to serve others, and yes, while it is important that we experiment in how to do this, I don't believe we should make it a point to use what we recommend to our own personal advantage.

  • http://www.studentbranding.com/ Dan Schawbel

    I agree and disagree with this post Keith. In general, everyone has to serve others to be in business because that is how money is exchanged (your manager, your customer/client, etc). The consultants or workers will the largest brands will attract more and better clients though, which means you have to be a great marketer/brand and be able to translate that into business value.

  • keithtrivitt

    Dan – Thanks for chiming in on this. Greatly appreciated. I certainly agree with you that the consultants or workers with larger brands will attract better clients, but at the same time, does that mean YOU have to be the brand? I'm not so sure about that. It all goes back to what Mike had to say about about understanding and embracing the technology and branding tactics that you are recommending to others, but I don't believe you should use those tactics to build yourself bigger than the brands you represent. Once you do that, I think you are doing a dis-service to your clients and organization.

    Thanks again for chiming in. Great to read some insight from a very knowledgeable source in this field!

  • http://twitter.com/willjwoo Jordan Woo

    This is a great topic that I think needs to be addressed more often. How easily do we get caught up with the “personal branding” monster within our respective industries?

    To answer Keith’s question, yes. The self-proclaimed experts do offend me. Experts? Really? How can you be an expert at something that is less than 5 years old? Everyone knows that we’re seeing the infancy of social media. Keith also makes a good point. If you are an expert, why don’t you have your own agency or firm? It’s because most us wouldn’t know how to run it successfully. We lack the necessary experience.

    It doesn’t matter how much you’ve learned about social media from Chris Brogan or Brian Solis, they can’t teach you how to operate in a business environment. Reading a blog isn’t the same as having first-hand work experience. We need to realize that even though we might have a better understanding of social media than our employers, we need them to bring us along just as much as they need us to bring them up to speed. I just don’t see how we can consider ourselves experts yet.

  • @jaykeith

    I'd be remiss if I didn't weigh in here, obviously. First, appreciate Keith's very nice shout out, but more importantly, the topic. I think that it's a good one. I completely agree that PR needs to be a “in the background” profession for the most part. I'm all for sharing insights, case studies, and real world examples of how you've helped your clients get exposure and great results with your peers and others via SM. I think that no one is better at this than Scott Monty at Ford. He's a very reluctant “celebrity” and always defers to the great products, teams, etc. That's how it should be. Is it ok to be out there and in the “spotlight” helping others while promoting the company you're representing? Of course, that helps both you and your client win. But my problem comes with self promoting blowhards who really haven't done much (or shown that they've done much) and are instead just spouting off the classic “if you're not doing this, you should be, because you're missing out.” Ok I get it, I should be utilizing SM, but how about giving me a roadmap, or some real life examples, rather than vague references and hints? I find that all too often that's what you get from many of the self proclaimed “experts.” And the problem is, sometimes perception is reality – if they get enough people to follow them and buy into the fact that they are in fact “experts” then voila, they are. That's another negative by product of SM.

    The basic premise of PR will always be the same – you get results for your clients or company, and you try your best to stay out of the way. I think that SM has given many PR people an avenue to get some credit and praise lavished upon them, something they have desperate craved for a long time. From my standpoint, that's a negative, and Keith's point is a valid one, if you're serving yourself and not your client, you're not doing your job. You should be making them famous, not yourself, even if it is “in the process.” The second we lose sight of that is the moment we stop being effective at what it is we're supposed to be doing – focusing on the brand that pays us, not our “own.”

  • http://www.prinsportsblog.com BGleas

    This is a great topic. I think it's similar to the struggle we're seeing in the media these days. Are they reporting the story or are they the story?

    You see it especially in politics and sports media. PTI and the spin-offs it's produced are a perfect example. The media, similar to PR Pros, are more inclined to be the story these days, it's the shift in the landscape we're seeing right now. Right, or wrong, it's the way we're moving.

    I do find it uncomfortable and awkward at times though, because I was taught, like many of you, that I should be in the background as a PR person. But, the question is, as a PR person, if you're not branding yourself, are you falling behind?

  • keithtrivitt

    Jordan – Great point about the fact that just because you're a so-called “expert,” that doesn't mean you necessarily know how to run or succeed with a business. This reminds me of the season finale of Mad Men last week where they decide to break off and create their own ad agency, but quickly realize that despite how talented they are in their respective areas of expertise, and despite the fact that Don Draper essentially is the forward-facing “brand” of Sterling Cooper, no one has any clue how to actually run a business. The only one who does is Pryce, who by most estimations has never even thought of his personal brand, as he was always a cog within a larger machine, but he did know how to very effectively run a company.

    And you're right: We need others in place who aren't so concerned with building their own brand, but are concerned with building and enhancing the brand and reputation of their company, as well as that of their clients. That balance – and it is certainly a tricky one to maintain – is what can be the difference maker between very successful service agencies and just mediocre ones.

    Thanks for chiming in.

  • keithtrivitt

    Jay – First, thanks for giving me the inspiration for this post. Obviously, you and I have similar opinions on this subject.

    I do find a lot of value in what you say about staying out of the way of the enhancement of our clients' businesses. Certainly, we play a major factor in that enhancement, but I think we can all cite instances where some within PR/marketing/advertising have actually done a disservice to their clients by trying to somehow make themselves a part of the story.

    Fact is, our story is best told when our names are never mentioned in a story. That's when I believe we know we did something right. It's when your name starts getting out there for some reason or other than you should worry.

  • keithtrivitt

    Fantastic question on that last part about if you're a PR person, are you falling behind if you're not branding yourself.

    I honestly don't know that answer, although my comments above and in this post may lean otherwise.

    So let's open this up to others: If you're in PR/marketing/advertising, are you falling behind if you're not branding yourself?

  • @jaykeith

    This is also a great point. News organizations are actually showcasing the personalities giving us the news (including newspapers, magazines, TV outlets, etc.) rather than the actual story. In this way, the real news and objectivity gets lost. It's kind of like the “getting mine” mentality. It's not enough just to break a good story like Woodward and Bernstein anymore, you have to break the story first, then be on every news show in America talking about how you broke it, and more importantly, what YOUR take on the news is. That's now what reporting is about, and it's not what PR is about either. In this way, with SM making “celebrities” out of all of us, it's getting us further and further away from the ground rules of the professions, and that's a shame. It's almost like you can't help but wanting to be in the spotlight, and have your 15 minutes of fame. And that's why the media (and PR in some ways) in general is taking a real turn for the worse in my opinion.