When personal branding hurts good journalism

For today’s journalists, personal branding has become an industry must for when you want to get noticed by — and write serious content for — an accredited publication. The easiest way for publications to tap into your personality, expertise and writing voice is by sifting through the blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, writing samples and more that form your brand identity as a journalist. However, left unchecked, your quest to create an authentic journalistic identity can easily backfire.

When you get hired, your employer will still expect that your writing emulates the editorial voice of its publication, which is often synonymous with its brand, regardless of how you market yourself. It seems obvious, but readers just aren’t interested in reading fashion editorial that sounds like it was written by a jaded hard news journalist or reading a lad mag that sounds like it was written by the fine editors over at Jezebel. It’s a part of knowing one’s audience, and that’s what you are being paid to do.

However, I have read an increasing number of guest columns, freelanced pieces and long form articles written in such a way that the publication’s editorial voice is, at times, drowned out by obvious brand messaging promoting its authour. Worse yet is that these brand messages can also be truly subtle to the point that you might not notice writing them yourself. In either case, you’re undermining the publication you spent so much effort to work for.

(Of course, there are degrees to this — GQ wanted The Sartorialist’s brand in their book, not just another writer’s.)

So, how do you balance maintaining the authentic personal brand that landed you the gig in the first place with respecting the integrity of your employer? Although every publication is different, here are a few things to keep in mind:

You only get one byline

Unless otherwise stipulated (read: you’re famous or an industry expert), “I” rarely has a place in your article, though it has recently been thrown around more and more freely. Publications often employ the confident Pluralis Majestatis, or the royal “we.” You may be an expert on French cuisine, but your employer is paying you for that knowledge – “We think so and so is the best restaurant in Toronto.” In fact, it actually reflects better on your personal brand when your words or opinions seem to line up with that of a greater entity; it helps generate authenticity and confidence, both keys to maintaining a good journalistic identity, without forcing anything.

Who do you work for?

If you mention any publication, it damn well better be the one you are writing for. It sounds obvious, but I have seen writers allude to personal blogs or to unrelated articles they’ve written for other publications as a way of writing themselves into the piece. Don’t do this – for all intents and purposes, you are ultimately responsible for selling your employer’s brand, not your own or somebody else’s. It’s inappropriate and cheap. If it helps, try personifying your employer’s brand. If you find yourself putting words into its mouth, adjust.

You don’t know best

You might not mean anything by it, but when you write your brand into a piece, it looks an awful lot like you think the publication’s voice needs re-tuning (and it should be more like yours). Employers are already sensitive to receiving pitches from folks telling them they know what’s best for their publication, which is a killer assumption to have if you want to keep your gig. Inconsistencies like this may make your employer’s brand seem inauthentic to readers, especially in cases of established publications. Readers have a specific set of expectations of the Toronto Star, for example — they’d notice if you wrote an article in the style of the Sun.

Don’t let being an expert get in the way of proper writing

If you were asked to cover a specific industry, it follows that you were likely hired on for your knowledge. However, like every other journalist, you must demonstrate your knowledge by writing a good piece supported by solid evidence, even if you’ve been hired to give personal conjecture. It may be Journalism 101, but opinion or editorialization is one way a self-indulgent personal brand can infiltrate otherwise good work.

Practice good social etiquette

We all love it when a high-profile publication links to our social media or blog, but this is a privilege, not a right. Some publications will add their editors’ or trusted freelancers’ links to a byline or at the end of an article because the writers’ personal brands consistently mesh well with their own and they want to promote them. Don’t assume that your employer wants your brand identity continuing to represent them long after your article is read. Additionally, if you are afforded this courtesy, no article should ever conclude with a personal statement paragraph effectively constituting a quarter of your total word count.

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