Update: I have blogged about my own personal branding strategy.
Update: I used Storify to curate discussion of this issue on various blogs and Twitter.
Update: Weingarten has responded twice. Please see the first comment and his later comment.
Gene Weingarten has developed an outstanding personal brand as a journalist. But that brand will not let him write, except scornfully, about branding and journalism. So I will answer the question a journalism student (identified only as “Leslie”) asked him: How he built his “personal brand” over the years. Update: Leslie Trew Magraw, the student in question, gave me permission to post her research paper on Weingarten’s brand. And Owen Youngman, her professor, blogged about this branding discussion as well.
The question was a belt-high fastball for Weingarten, whose brand is equal parts wit, sarcasm, insight and the ability to write tearjerking (from laughter or other emotions) sentences that you wish you could have written. He swung at the pitch and wrote a funny column, How ‘branding’ is ruining journalism.
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.
Lots of journalists might have been smart enough (and scornful enough of branding) to think of the basic response of turning the branding question around into a branding iron that would inflict pain. But that “nice, meaty sizzle” kicker is a classic Weingarten line that I wish I would have written, even though I disagree with Gene on this.
I won’t quote at length from his criticism of branding in journalism. But I have to include Weingarten’s formula for career success:
My goals, however, were unambiguous, and heroic: 1) Get great stories that improve the world. 2) Get famous. 3) Get doe-eyed young women to lean in close and whisper, “Take me.”
Um, Leslie, that’s branding. Process, insight and humor — great branding advice delivered within the Weingarten brand.
Note the order. First came the work. Now, the first goal seems to be self-promotion — the fame part, the “brand.”
Leslie, Gene was giving you insight about branding, including the insight that veteran journalists are scornful of the term, even if they are good at the practice. Despite what he says, branding starts with quality and hard work. But lots of outstanding journalists who did the hard work are losing their jobs. They are losing their jobs mostly because their industry has failed to develop new business models and new revenue streams in a period of disruption. But some of those journalists are losing their jobs or struggling to find new ones, in part, because they failed to show their value to their employers and their communities. Personal branding is about showing your value. It starts with quality and hard work, but if you don’t show the value, you can become undervalued.
(In truth, lots of journalists with strong brands have lost their jobs and struggle to find work, too. That’s how severe the disruption in journalism has become. I know of journalists with brands I respect who are unable to find jobs. But I do believe branding helps you in these turbulent times. I know it has helped me, and I’m sure it has helped Gene.)
So yes, Leslie, the Gene Weingarten brand starts with hard work and quality journalism. I have frequently cited his Pearls Before Breakfast masterpiece (his first Pulitzer Prize-winning story) in my storytelling workshops. I could just as easily cite Fatal Distraction, Pulitzer-winner number two. That’s an illustration of how quality, hard work and branding go together: Winning two Pulitzers is an indication of quality and hard work, but “two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Gene Weingarten” is a brand. (That exact phrase in quotation marks, by the way, gets 258 hits on Google.)
Lots of Pulitzer winners and other outstanding journalists fail to develop a strong personal brand, though. 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. His protests aside, Weingarten has become a journalist whose personality and creativity are part of his journalism. By becoming a columnist, he was allowed to be funny and personable, to become a personal brand, while working for one of the most serious (and successful) brands in journalism, the Washington Post.
He writes in first person, something most journalists are not allowed to do. (I will blog sometime about how one of the best pieces I ever wrote was not published because I used first person and I was too much a part of the story.) Cartoons accompanying Weingarten’s columns frequently include caricatures that make him recognizable (I recognized him the moment I saw him, and was delighted to meet him, and told my wife right away, another indication of his successful branding). While traditional journalists tend to keep out of their stories at all costs, Weingarten was a key character in Pearls Before Breakfast, staging the whole stunt himself.
Many old-school journalists who are disdainful of branding are also disdainful of social media, especially Twitter. So is Weingarten. But he is so clever that he uses Twitter regularly (1,554 tweets), making it part of his brand, showing his disdain with an avatar that is a disgusting photograph of a
turd rubber novelty item resembling a turd. (Previous sentence was corrected after Gene’s comment.)
Branding is not all about selling yourself to the public. Sometimes it’s just establishing a brand within the industry. I was a pretty good editor and reporter for years. But my career became more successful when I used personal appearances and the web (through this blog, an earlier blog, a now-defunct website called No Train, No Gain, and, yes, Twitter) to build a personal brand, first as a newsroom trainer and later as a voice for innovation.
I’m not necessarily a better journalist now than I was 15 or 20 years ago, but I’m a more successful brand. Not as successful as Gene Weingarten, but I’m trying. Perhaps I should ask him for some branding advice.