Lockdown lessons

The importance of personal branding in a digital world

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

@_neeev My new lockdown hobbies include: staring at old holiday photos and making myself sad :)
@_neeev My new lockdown hobbies include: staring at old holiday photos and making myself sad :)

Imagine starting work without attending an interview and without the usual face to face induction process and get-to-know-you meetings with colleagues. That’s how it is this year for many starters, including new graduates and placement year students.

In the absence of all of the usual social cues, what do we have left? Sure, we have an abundance of communication channels: Zoom, Skype, Teams, Meet and more in addition to phone and Whatsapp messages. We can still talk when we want.

But these conversations are restricted to members of our networks: our colleagues, our family, our friends, our students. In short, our community. We don’t take calls from strangers any more than we welcome invitations on LinkedIn from people with no connection to our work and no explanation for why they’re seeking the connection.

Before we have permission to communicate we first have to connect. We have to turn strangers into friends. As ever, communicating is the easy part. Connecting is harder.

It’s hardest of all for those starting out; those with the least social capital. If you’ve never worked in a PR or comms role, you won’t have colleagues in the business. You won’t be a member of existing professional networks and you won’t have permission to connect.

Sure you can start a Twitter account and follow people in the industry; you can do this without permission. But your aim should be to build relationships, not just find people to follow. This involves giving as well as taking.

A new Twitter profile has no photo, no tweets, no followers: in other words, no network and no social capital. So why would anyone follow you back?

You need something to share, and you need to think through what your words, your pictures and your social media content says about you.

Just as we’d advise clients and companies, your personal branding should start with your ‘owned media’. Are you telling your story through your blog or website? If so, your social media should link back to your online presence. Think of this as money in the bank (social capital in the form of existing content and connections).

It’s easy to be wise after the event, so forgive my self-indulgence. I can at least claim some consistency having started blogging about public relations back in 2001, and having encouraged PR students to blog since before we even had Twitter and Instagram.

In 2020, having a well-developed social media presence is more valuable than ever since it’s your window onto the world. It’s your means of becoming known even before making connections or applying for work.

It’s also a real life lesson in public relations and public relationships: how to create content, build connections, and join conversations.

Like all lessons, there are risks and you will make mistakes. As long as they’re not fatal, that’s fine.

Nor is there a one-size-fits-all template; a right and a wrong way. What’s true for your personal branding is also true for public relations. You need an objective; you need to be mindful of a few guiding principles (mostly amounting to ‘don’t be a dick’); and you need permission to experiment. This isn’t a neat university assignment with ready-made marking criteria; it’s a real world experiment with three possible outcomes. Nothing happens; something good happens; something bad happens.

We’ve just announced our Best PR Student Blogger 2020 and commended the runner up. Let’s take a look at Niamh Murray and Emma Rogers to see the different approaches each took to content creation and community building. For variety, I’ll add in a postgraduate student who brought years of experience in another profession to her content: Teela Clayton.

These are three individuals who took three distinctive approaches to the challenge.

Niamh Murray: Freckles & Thoughts blog

Approach: Distinctive

She’d spent two years creating content and has developed a distinctive personal style and routine. She posts weekly and her commentary is personal rather than being professionally-oriented. The style is quirky, conversational and emotional (often intentionally funny). She’s like that favourite newspaper or magazine columnist you look forward to reading.

Niamh is also untypical in her use of social media: she’s shunned Twitter (despite much encouragement) and prefers LinkedIn as a professional network.

Emma Rogers: Emma Rogers blog

Approach: Classic

It would be hard for others to follow Niamh’s lead as she’s so quirkily individualistic. So would-be student bloggers should follow Emma’s example instead: she takes all the right steps. She has registered her own domain name and has mastered WordPress. Read any of her blog posts and you’ll struggle to find a jarring sentence or a gauche comment. She sets and maintains very high standards (as did Orlagh Shanks, our 2018 and 2019 winner). Like Orlagh, it’s taken her years to get to this level, having started blogging in 2015 as a teenager on a mission to become an influencer.

The next classic move is to maintain this consistency across her social media channels: her blog links to her professional Twitter account and LinkedIn profile, and also to her personal Instagram feed. This seamless navigation between the personal and professional worlds is often a challenge for learners. Emma makes it look easy.

Teela Clayton: LinkedIn profile

Approach: Connector 

(I should declare an interest here. I don’t know Niamh or Emma personally, so I’m judging them solely on their social media presence. But I have taught Teela – until the lockdown abruptly ended our chances to meet face to face.)

Teela came to her postgraduate course as an experienced teacher. She’s already a strong communicator and an accomplished writer. She posts content on LinkedIn rather than on a personal blog, and this reveals something of her approach which is to put the network first. As well as being a slog, blogging can be unrewarding in that few blog posts generate comments. The advantage of using LinkedIn is that you’re sharing with an existing network, and comments and conversations can follow directly on from the post. (The disadvantage of relying on LinkedIn – or Medium, say – is that it’s not ‘owned’ media: you are subject to that site’s algorithms and terms and conditions, which can change over time. You are in effect renting a presence on the web rather than owning your own home there).

The next indication that Teela is a connector first and foremost is that she embraces opportunities to join the conversation on social media, becoming a frequent participant in #PowerAndInfluence Twitter chats and the #CommsHero community. Undergraduate students are not excluded from these networks, but they’re much less likely to have the confidence to join in with practitioners and make a contribution.

Looking ahead

We’re already making plans to restart our #prstudent #bestPRblogs initiative in the autumn. With university teaching likely to be delivered remotely for the next academic year, I anticipate blogs and social media becoming even more useful as a means of shrinking distance and making connections. Lecturers can build blogging into their assessment strategy or they can simply encourage their students to participate and learn new skills by doing so. (I’m happy to talk about this to academic colleagues over the summer, and to talk to your students in the autumn).

This post has shown three different approaches to blogging and social media, but there’s plenty of scope for innovation. Emma Rogers alluded to her earlier attempt to become a YouTube influencer: I’ve occasionally included student videos in the #bestPRblogs round-up but have only once included a student podcast. More would be welcome.

As would inventive uses of TikTok. You’d expect students, emerging from their teenage bedrooms, to be much more accomplished in YouTube and TikTok than their lecturers (or their parents). This is your superpower – so use it!

There are pressures growing up in the age of social media, sure. (Blog posts about mental health are a staple). There are also problems for young people in the post-pandemic depression with reduced opportunities to travel, to work and to volunteer (we’ll be watching this closely). 

There are problems in public relations with diversity and inclusion (ditto). But… there are also unprecedented opportunities to shine using the most powerful and pervasive technology available to any generation in history.

Not everyone can, should or will become a rich and famous influencer. But everyone can gain skills in content, connections and communicating online. It’s a perfect way of developing and proving your skills to work in public relations. It’s something every keen public relations student should aspire towards.