In 2007, Atlantic Media's director of digital strategy Scott Karp was named one of the 40 most influential people in publishing by Folio magazine. But Folio wasn't honoring Karp for his work at Atlantic, which publishes the Atlantic Monthly magazine, but was instead fawning over the work Karp did at his personal blog, Publishing 2.0, which covered how technology is changing the publishing business.
Karp is a great example of someone who worked at a company but also developed his own personal brand, something that's been in vogue since Tom Peters famously touted The Brand Called You at Fast Company magazine. With blogging, Twitter and social networks as springboards, personal branding has spread like wildfire through media and technology companies, allowing people like Matt Cutts (Google), Robert Scoble (Microsoft, PodTech, Fast Company) Xeni Jardin (Wired, NPR) and Scott Monty (Ford) to expand their influence.
Karp says he built his brand at Publishing 2.0, using it as a soapbox of ideas and a forum to discuss them through comments.
"My blog became resume, business card, references, network all in one," Karp told me. "I would go to conferences, meet people, and find they already 'knew' me through my blog -- an odd but useful form of micro-celebrity."
Through his blog, Karp met fellow blogger Robert Young, who ended up co-founding Publish2 with Karp, a startup that helps journalists share ideas and links.
At a time when people jump from job to job (or get laid off from job after job), personal branding is becoming more than just a hobby -- it's a necessity. Matt Cutts, who heads the web spam team at Google and runs a popular personal blog, has become much more than a faceless programmer at the technology giant.
"When you're considering switching jobs, even a personal website with a small portfolio of sample work can be invaluable," Cutts said. "People will search for you online, so it's important to take part in that conversation, and having your own website can be a great way to put your best foot forward."
Dan Schawbel, author of "Me 2.0" and publisher of the Personal Branding Blog thinks that good companies and publishers will give workers the freedom to create personal brands.
"I read a survey last year that showed that college graduates would spend an average of 1.6 years at their first position, after college, before moving on," he said. "That number is going to shrink in the future, so companies should focus on results and let their employees own their brand. Smart companies will look at employees as their greatest asset and by allowing them to engage in social media, they will be that much stronger."
Balancing Personal with Corporate Brands
Personal branding in the media obviously predates the digital age, with newspaper columnists going on TV and TV anchors writing books. But now, there's a chance for many more reporters, editors, marketers and salespeople to use simple digital tools to create their own following online. And the media companies that encourage that -- without too many restrictions -- will end up reaping the benefits.
One of the more tech-enlightened newspaper editors, John Robinson of the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record, says that when a columnist or blogger builds a "tribe" of followers, it helps the paper.
"Newspapers should encourage columnists and bloggers to build their own brands online," he told me. "Trust and integrity are two of the coins of the online realm, in my opinion. We know now that it's no longer good enough to tell people that Joe the columnist is trustworthy. People will determine whether Joe is trustworthy by what he says, what he does, who he associates with, how he talks with others, who he links to, what he links to and who he's friends with and follows. People develop that sense of Joe over a period of time watching him and talking with him."
Jeremy Zawodny was a prominent engineer at Yahoo (now working at Craigslist), but built his own personal brand on an independent blog that gained notoriety -- and also caused trouble within Yahoo.
"When I got started it was a rocky road," Zawodny told me. "Several years ago, having a public blog on which I wrote about my employer (Yahoo at the time) rubbed some people inside the company the wrong way. That led to a fair amount of criticism and backlash. In the end, after several uncomfortable meetings and discussions and some careful wording on sensitive topics, everyone agreed that it was a positive thing in the long run. One thing that fell out of that was a set of company guidelines so that others would not have to navigate the minefield that I did."
Scott Monty, who leads social media efforts for Ford Motor Co. and has a successful blog and Twitter feed (more than 26,000 followers), says people should be careful not to overshadow their brands.
"If you're employed by a notable brand, it should always be brand first, self second," Monty told me. "Your personal brand will benefit from the halo effect of your company's brand. If you want to promote your own brand, you should should either (a) go into business for yourself, or (b) figure out a way to do it separate from your company."
Kathlyn Clore is associate editor for the European Journalism Centre and described herself to me as "20something journalist" who has a personal blog. She said she has limited what she writes about reporting work she has done, and is wary about blogging taking away from work.
"The biggest issue for me has been colleagues asking suspicious questions about work-related goals and intentions when they saw me begin blogging about professional topics in January of this year," she said. "It probably raises the most eyebrows if I'm seen to be dedicating time to my own site/brand/portfolio of work when perhaps I could have been doing something for the journalism centre for which I do most of my work. I'm sure that's true for others."
Keeping Talent On Board
Even at a time when people are less likely to quit due to the economy, companies are better off keeping their talented workers happy rather than upsetting them with limits. Branding expert Schawbel notes that some media companies are better than others when it comes to tolerating personal branding.
"Media companies such as Fast Company have completely ripped apart their old website and turned it into a community, while other companies, such as the Wall Street Journal have placed their employees in chains," he said. "For instance, [the Journal's] social media policy states that 'business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter.'"
Tom Regan was a longtime editor at the Christian Science Monitor, but now is a Monitor columnist and freelancer due to an editor who didn't give him enough room to be creative. He says that smart companies that give people space to be themselves have a better change of keeping them on board.
"If a writer believes they are building something up, and the company has nurtured it, then I don't think most people would go," Regan told me. "It's when they feel that they don't have that environment that they say, 'The hell with this, I'm going to do this on my own.'"
Publish2's Karp told me that media companies need to value personal branding above all else.
"In a digital media world where corporate industrial assets like printing presses, delivery trucks, etc. are declining in value, people -- reporters, editors, bloggers -- are the greatest asset that publications have," he said. "They should actively cultivate that asset by helping personal brands flourish...You could define social media as the shift from publication brands to personal brands, as media shifts to the social web. At some point a publication brand without personal brands will have very little value to the people who consume that brand."
Advice on Personal Branding
Here's a roundup of advice for people who want to create a personal brand online:
"Grab a domain name and work on burnishing your personal reputation online. It's definitely not the case that everyone needs a blog, but having one place that acts as a face to the world can really help. There's room for a resume/CV, but also for some writing samples that show off your abilities." -- Matt Cutts, Google (from his Letter to a young journalist post)
"The importance of building your brand online today is an opportunity to survive this print industry crash, and protect yourself by having an asset you can leverage to get your next writing job, whether you want to be a freelance writer or work as an employee. Personal branding has become mandatory recently, not just something to do to get ahead." -- Dan Schawbel, Personal Branding blog
"In the future, personal brands will be everything. As newspapers and media companies get smaller and break apart, journalists will be known as much by their personal/professional brand as by the company they work for. Many will be their own company. The quicker you establish a digital brand -- I recommend shooting for integrity, trust and authority -- the better." -- John Robinson, Greensboro News & Record
"The microphone is always on. Remember that whatever you do, it reflects on you and your company, if you connect those elements of your life. And in this era, you need to be very careful, as search engines can log all sorts of things. Remember: Whatever happens in Vegas...stays on Google." -- Scott Monty, Ford Motor Co.
"I would go so far as to say that journalists without personal brands, like journalists without digital and web skills, are going to be less and less employable. If you want to be a cog in the machine, it's probably not a good idea to be a journalist in a social media world." -- Scott Karp, Publish2