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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