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What the Personal Branding Debate Can Teach Us about PR, Social Media & Ourselves

By Tiffany Monhollon

Every once in a while, I see some form of this debate roll around the social media sphere. It’s an interesting debate, carried through scholarly literature to the blogosphere to conversations I come across on Twitter.

The other night, I came across a group of my Twitter peers debating the relevance and authenticity of personal branding, particularly within the social media landscape. Is it just shameless self-promotion? What happens when you don’t put yourself out there? No one else will get publicity for you. Or will they? Can’t it be useful for promoting more than just you? How far is too far when it comes to self-promotion? What’s the point of it all, anyway?

The critique of the personal branding model is not new. I’ve questioned it myself hundreds of times. After all, if branding is a marketing function, and the goal of marketing is sales, then what does that say about applying the process to you as a person, employee, or expert? It seems to imply that the ultimate goal is sales – whether through acquiring employment, building a business, or selling your consulting services.

And that seemingly self-centered emphasis means that the concept of personal branding could have a bit of a problem. Especially in what appears to be an increasingly social, community-oriented media landscape. To many, it seems just a bit too narcissistic.

An Image Problem

A while back, a friend gave me a similarly thoughtful critique of the name of this blog. It’s nothing new, but, ironic as it may sound, PR has an image problem.

What does that mean for the term “Personal PR” at first glance? My friend and I debated. Personal, for one, sounds selfish. And PR typically brings to mind spin, at worst, and publicity, at best. Which both seem at face value to be self-centered concepts – especially when you’re making it “personal.”

Defining Evolving Terms

But really, the issue here is semantics. Fair enough. Personal Branding began as a metaphor in the nomenclature of careers, business and entrepreneurship, after all.

Now the concept has taken off in a world where competition for jobs is increasingly difficult, even for the most experienced workers – or arguably, especially for them – and as increasingly saturated new media landscape has converged to create a perfect storm for personal participation in the great branding race.

So, to better understand the underlying metaphor of personal branding and Personal PR, it’s important to examine the evolving definitions of both branding and PR.

Branding - At #Brandchat this week [a live special interest Twitter chat], we had a great discussion about what a brand actually is, who defines it, and whether – or how – a brand can evolve. A brand is more than simply a name and image – it’s not just a logo or a type of product. That is the face of a brand, but a brand is also a promise an organization makes to its audiences. And there’s a lot more to building a brand than simply slapping a pretty package on something and calling it go. Consumers equate the actual quality of your product with their measure of your brand. Your brand equity matters when people make purchasing decisions, yes, but a brand is not exclusively useful for the process of sales. In today’s world, the concept of a brand has arguably evolved.

Public Relations
– My favorite definitions of PR, and the most popular among most scholars and practitioners, focus on the process of creating and maintaining mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their stakeholders. While used in common rhetoric to refer to the process of getting ink (whether literal, or, these days, digital,) the press component of PR is one small part of a broader picture, a practice which focuses on audiences from internal to external, relies on a variety of tools and tactics, and, most importantly, is continually evolving yet still rooted in the concept of relationships.

Which is why, as a model applied to how you communicate and share your personal “brand” online, public relations is a great metaphor for understanding exactly how that process can work.

Business Gets Personal

But, things aren’t quite that neat and tidy. When it comes to applying these concepts to your own professional image online, it’s important to also understand one other important fact: In today’s business world, the lines between marketing and PR are blurring. A thriving social media world and a struggling traditional media system are front-and-center in this evolution.

In companies and agencies everywhere, the rug is getting pulled out from under the order and structure a neatly defined media landscape provided for so long. Media, publicity, communications was handled mostly by PR. Branding was mainly a marketing strategy but by no means the only one.

Now, new media is shaking things up and threatening to topple silos. Some in social media argue that it’s a PR function, while some say it’s a marketing tactic. In reality, the answer is not perfectly clear. And maybe, it doesn’t matter who social media belongs to after all.

Because at its heart, social media means that real, two-way communication is now a real-time reality. Which means that “me” already matters much less than “we.”

Less about Me, More about We

Businesses, individuals, organizations – are all dealing with this evolution in different ways. As consumers become more savvy and interactive, professional PR and marketing practitioners have the opportunity to evolve from a Return-on-Investment model and take advantage of a Return-on-Engagement opportunity. Which may mean becomning less territorial and more collaborative. And as business deals with the intimate involvement of the customer with the definition and reputation of the precious brand asset, individuals (many of us professionals in this line of work ourselves) are undergoing an intensive questioning process ourselves.

If the definition of “brand” is changing for business, what does that mean for the operation of my personal brand for me? And as the worlds of personal and business converge with the advent of social media, how can a personal brand embrace the “we” mentality – not just as a career strategy, but as an everyday business practice?

In a brilliant article dissecting the future of the personal brand construct with the evolution of the semantic web, Valeria Maltoni asks some important questions that remain at the heart of this debate: “How can we use our skills and experience to elevate not just our own status and condition, but that of those who come in contact with us? We’re learning to build a personal brand in a Web 2.0 world. Will the idea of personal brand still be ‘in’ in the Web 3.0 or semantic Web? Is authenticity online really authentic or is it the evolution of the mechanisms that produced stars?”

In today’s world, microcelebrity is certainly possible. Is it right? Is it wrong? Is it useful? The questions remain, and the debate will continue. But conclusions will emerge, and eventually, consensus will begin to rise to the top. Conclusions and consensus you and I - and our personal brands - have the opportunity to help shape.

And that, in the end, is the most important thing we can learn from the personal branding debate. As individuals and professionals, “we” now have an unbelievable opportunity to help question, define, and refine. If we choose to.

What’s your take?

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If you enjoyed this post, the biggest compliment you can give is your conversation and recommendation. So please, share your comments, thoughts and debates. Bring the debate back to Twitter, and chat with me there. Respond to this post on your own blog. Send me a video response, tweet it, or print it out and show it to your dad. Or better yet, have your dad print it off and show it to his co-workers, like mine does! And if you’d like to know the next time I post, sign up for automatic updates.

By Tiffany Monhollon | May 8, 2009

Topics: Authenticity, Business, Personal Branding, Personal PR, Social Media |

12 Responses to “What the Personal Branding Debate Can Teach Us about PR, Social Media & Ourselves”

  1. What the Personal Branding Debate Can Teach Us about PR, Social … Says:
    May 8th, 2009 at 11:43 am

    [...] here:  What­ t­he P­erson­al­ Bran­di­n­g Debat­e C­an&#1… Share and [...]

  2. Recruiting Animal Says:
    May 8th, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    There are two kinds of business people online: cowboys and shopkeepers.

    The shopkeepers like to paste on a big smile and show everyone how smart they are - for instance, on the blogs.

    They can’t stand criticism because they are only using the net to make themselves look good in front of the market.

    The cowboys like to get drunk and shoot up the town. They like to get on the blogs and argue.

    When you point out a shopkeeper’s mistake online, you might get a note that asks you to do this thru email in the future. Or the person might simply hate you.

    How will things change as social media becomes even more mainstream?

    Well, I don’t think the shopkeepers are going to change in the short term.

    Especially since every kind of branding expert warns us incessantly of the dangers that big brother google can do to your brand.

    If you’re going to drop your mask, they say, don’t do it online.

  3. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 9th, 2009 at 4:43 am

    @ Animal - Interesting perspective. I think handling criticism is something that we have to deal with in all areas of life. Dealing with it publicly, online, can be tough. And it’s why, probably, more people don’t publish their authentic self online. I wrote about this a lot when I first started blogging - and I still do :)


    But you talked a lot about the shopkeepers - what about the cowboys? More and more, I see my peers saying, there has to be a balance. To be someone interesting enough to capture your attention but professional enough that they maintain trust.

    The goal is to project an authentic self - wherever you are. That’s my goal anyway. To be the same person online that you would meet in real life, and to carry myself in a way where I would be consistent. So that means both sides impact each other.

    So what do you get when a shopkeeper and a cowboy combine?

  4. Valeria Maltoni Says:
    May 9th, 2009 at 8:04 am

    I’d just like to point out that sometimes the assumption or premise is what creates the problem in the first place.

    “There are two kinds of business people online: cowboys and shopkeepers.” If that’s what you believe, that’s what you get.

    Thank you for the great thread you built on the thoughts, Tiffany.

  5. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 9th, 2009 at 8:48 am

    @ Valeria - Well put. In leadership training, this is what we were taught are called “assumed constraints.” We act based within a system of constraints, whether real, imagined, or both.

    And thanks for the encouragement.

    I’ve put a lot of time, thought, and research into these ideas, though this is a very informal overview, so hopefully it’s a valuable contribution as we as professionals approach developing norms, practices, and guidelines that can carry us through as the evolution continues.

  6. Recruiting Animal Says:
    May 9th, 2009 at 8:56 am


    Dear, you’re telling me it’s all in my head. Only it isn’t. I’ve been around for awhile and the uptight upright showmen often threaten to take over the floor.


    >So what do you get when a shopkeeper and a cowboy combine?

    I don’t know. A very unhappy person? A kid out on his best behaviour? A politician?

    Look, a cowboy isn’t always in a gunfight or a flame war. He’s got ideas and questions and he’s not afraid to put them out there.

    He likes to undo the top button of his shirt and crack a joke once in a while. Or take a shot. It doesn’t have to be mean-spirited. Sometimes horsing around is fun.

    The shop-keeper might be very smart. But he isn’t lively and he tends to pull away from calling a spade a spade. His jokes tend to be insipid because he doesn’t like to indulge in humour that has a real target. He’s too concerned about appearing proper.

    As for the authentic self, what’s that? Are you yourself when you are entertaining someone. For instance, putting on a show for some little kids? Yes and no. I think so. But that doesn’t mean that you act that way all the time in every situation.

    To say that you have to be “the same person online that you would meet in real life” is an inappropriate stricture. There’s no reason at all to be the same in every situation.

    And to be different at different times and places is not the same as being deceitful.

    (Though sometimes you have to be deceitful as well. If I ask you for information that you don’t want to give me, you’re often better off saying you don’t know that than letting me know that you refuse to share).

  7. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 9th, 2009 at 9:10 pm

    @ Animal - Haha, alrighty then, cowboy! All I’m saying is that even in real life, I’m not the “get drunk and shoot up the town” type, exactly. But then again, that’s not my metaphor, so I’ll keep arguing that everyone can (and should) find their own ;)

    As far as authenticity goes, life happens within context, so of course people act and react within the circumstances around them, whether online or offline. I don’t think that makes being authentic an inappropriate stricture. But it’s ok if you do.

  8. Valeria Maltoni Says:
    May 9th, 2009 at 10:44 pm

    @Animal - name’s Valeria, a small step for someone who’s been around a while, I realize, but I’d appreciate if with the slather of condescension you demonstrated respect for the people you are giving your lesson to. You continue to make of things whatever your interpretation is, which is just fine by me.

  9. Recruiting Animal Says:
    May 9th, 2009 at 11:25 pm


    Your name reminded me of something special


    Don’t get hung up on your name. That’s a little kid’s game.

    You didn’t define your term but authentic implies that you are in some way straightforward and honest.

    But if you are honest and direct when your feelings change you are going to be different than you were before.

    eg “I don’t like you anymore.”

    Some people are going to find that confusing and will accuse you of being deceptive rather than honest.

    I think that you were referring to the Online Disinhibition Effect.


    I don’t think that’s inauthentic. That’s just a situational mood change.

    This entry on Wikipedia says that authenticity is being true to your own inner self.


    So if anything online disinhibition might be more authentic than normal behaviour in which people are intimidated others who can strike back in more substantial ways.

  10. Jamie Favreau Says:
    May 12th, 2009 at 11:46 am

    I think personal branding brings your name to the forefront but it is all about what you do with it that matters in the end.

    If you are transparent and you know what you want then good things will happen. You just need to learn how to open the right doors.

  11. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    May 12th, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    @Jamie - Stewardship of your brand is ciritical, I agree. And, interestingly enough, what you do with your own brand is an opportunity to build social capital and to endow it.

  12. Integrity Matters Everywhere at Personal PR Says:
    June 30th, 2009 at 10:39 am

    [...] is something else I know about work right now. For me, at least, and maybe for you, the lines are blurring. Like it or not, work is no longer one, solid, concrete concept across the board. That space [...]