Should journalists be worried or even focused on their brands?
This isn't necessarily a new topic, but an issue that sure has exploded in the last week after Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten responded to a question in a column from a college journalism student about how he built his brand.
Weingarten is a decorated journalist. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes and has a very popular column in the Post called Below the Beltway. He's also syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group.
It's the entertaining response in his column that has so many in the industry abuzz. Here's a brief recap of what he had to say to the student.
"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.
These are financially troubled times for our profession, Leslie — times that test our character — and it is disheartening to learn that journalism schools are responding to this challenge by urging their students to market themselves like Cheez Doodles."
Cheez Doodles. Interesting. Numerous industry folks responded, included social media expert Steve Buttry and Medill's Owen Youngman.
Here's my take on the branding debate: Brands are essential, both for media companies and individual staff members, but brands aren't just about a bright-and-shiny new tool or some kind of egotistical look-at-me because I have 10,000 Twitter followers statement, but they're about building reader confidence and trust.
Journalists should want to develop personal brands because they are important in helping, if nothing else, readers build confidence in either a topic that a reporter covers or a form of technology that a reporter uses.
For example, if you cover the city beat at your newspaper, why wouldn't you want readers to call you first if they have a question or a tip on something at City Hall? If social media is something that you have a keen interest in and believe it's an area where you excel, why wouldn't you want readers to follow your posts as the news leader of your organization or the expert on a topic you are covering?
But with anything that you want to create stickiness with (and now that can include human beings), you really have to know how you want people to view you.
Do you want to be an editor who is known for asking the really tough questions during editorial board meetings, so much so that sources squirm in their chair?
Do you want to be known as a reporter, who has the ability to offer such color and scene setting language, that readers know that when they pick up your Sunday lifestyle story, they immediately will head to a peaceful and quiet place?
Do you want to be a multimedia journalist who is known as the go-to-source on new technology in the newsroom and is the first to encourage new engagement opportunities with readers?
The thing about a brand is that you really can't and shouldn't want to be all three of those things above. Dabblers are good to have, but they never become great at a single thing. Utility players are necessary, but they really have trouble building solid brands because they are focused on everything opposed to the key things that really matter to an organization.
So once you determine what niche you want to develop as your brand, how do you go about building a brand among your readers? There are three things I would consider:
1. Create standing content: If you are that City Hall reporter, who now has deep sources and insight into your beat, write a weekly column or blog about what you cover. That weekly column or blog will allow you to provide insider details that may be inappropriate for a traditional news story and will provide readers with new, rich content.
2. Social media: Most newspapers have Facebook and Twitter accounts, but the number of reporters who have them professionally dwindles in comparison. If you launch a professional Facebook or Twitter account and offer information on what you're covering and other links to reports and studies and other general goodness in your area of expertise, you're likely building a brand with a whole different audience than those who might read that City Hall notebook or column, referenced above.
3. Let readers talk to us: As editors start to embrace the importance of creating brands for topics reporters are experts in, it's important readers understand they have a line to your staff experts. Build promotions in stories, inviting readers to ask questions about what a reporter covers, write columns about the news-gathering process and definitely reach out to marketing on their ideas on how to build more awareness among readers about the expertise your staff members possess. Maybe it's a variety of house ads that push the different beat experts in your newsroom. That creates positive brand.
Brands aren't about ego. They are about building confidence among readers that you are the go-to source on something very specific. And what journalist today — or 30 years ago — didn't or wouldn't want that kind of confidence among the audience they serve? In the end, we want readers to find value in what we do and trust what they read.
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