The idea of personal branding as a means of presenting an individual is not new (indeed Tom Peters wrote about it in Fast Company in 1997 – and I examined it here three years ago in Greenbanana brand me). Adoption of social media as an easy online presence has led to acceptance of the concept of personal brand management – indeed, personal reputation management as discussed in this post by Greg Savage from Huffington Post last week.
Karl Nessmann published Personal Branding and the Role of Public Relations in 2010 considering personality PR as an approach for staging, positioning or presenting individuals (celebrities, executives or other people). In the book chapter I wrote providing “The Public Relations Perspective of Promotional Culture“, I used a quote by Samuel Johnson in The Rambler, written in 1751, regarding how:
Every man, however hopeless his pretensions may appear, has some project by which he hopes to rise to reputation; some art by which he imagines that the action of the world will be attracted; some quality, good or bad, which discriminates him from the common herd of mortals, and by which others may be persuaded to love, or compelled to fear him.
My point was to show how this idea, and the Rambler itself, could be considered as a promotional device that acted as a signifier in promoting Johnson’s personal fame, reflecting Wernick’s perspective on promotional culture.
But, as these ideas become increasingly commonplace, I’m keen to move on from the rather superficial ‘brand-me’ concept and the recommendations for promotion and reputation management of the self as if you are a product. From studying careers literature, I’m keen to consider the construction of a personal narrative, particularly through social media.
There is a huge body of literature considering theoretical aspects of narrative and narratology – little of which, perhaps surprisingly, has been evident in the academic public relations body of knowledge. The concept has been picked up in PR practice, largely in relation to story-telling, and Judy Gombita wrote a PR Conversations post (Constructing the Organizational Narrative) as a possible definition for PR in 2011, which I followed up with Plotting PR narrative in social media. I also included narrative (as a more useful approach than key messages) within The Public Relations Strategic Toolkit. But these related more to professional PR practice rather than personal communications.
In the psychology literature, narrative is mainly connected to personal or cultural identity and related to memory. In sociology, a constructionist approach is evident around narrative discourse theory, whilst Savickas is one of the theorists who propose a narrative framework in career counselling literature.
If we accept personal narrative as a process of construction involving reflexivity and crafting meaning around individual experience, we are supporting an argument for authenticity in living our own history. This seems to me to contrast with ideas around creating ‘brand-me’ in a more superficial and cynical way. In terms of social media presence, the personal narrative approach would emphasise looking for coherence throughout our framework of social media presence and across the temporal flow of communication we create through social media activity. The idea is that we are the narrator, the director and the starring character in our social media narrative. We are constructing, curating and conveying a personal and a professional identity as PR practitioners through the narrative traces of social media.
In my PhD work, I am interested in how PR practitioners construct their career experiences, the strategies they use when making decisions (or in directing their careers) and how they reflect on these in hindsight. I’m considering various career constructs, such as ideas around PR as a profession or a craft, etc and how these translate into the narratives that people create.
In practice, I’m interested in what we can tell about PR practitioners career behaviour through social media usage. Are there ebbs and flows reflecting interest and engagement with seeking new opportunities compared to being consumed in a particular job or project? Undoubtedly your LinkedIn activity may indicate when you are job hunting, for example. Are young practitioners more aware these days of the value of social media as they seek to build early career capital? And, what stories are they leaving behind them as they shift from entering the occupation with a juvenile social media record to crafting a professional narrative of their employability.
I think this is an emerging area where there is much to be learned – both from qualitative and quantitative analytical perspectives (although I tend towards exploring personal meaning rather than a Big Data approach).
Unlike managing ‘brand-me’ from a promotional or reputational perspective, I think that trying to manipulate a fake, false or fictionalised personal PR narrative will be more difficult. Like snails across a garden in the heat of summer, we are leaving trails that are messy and complex rather than a nice linear story or polished brand identity. If your personal social media narrative looks and reads like a simple novel, it is probably not true or authentic.
That’s not to say that PR practitioners shouldn’t be aware of the narrative threads they are crafting in their career tapestry. But I like the idea that the image or patterns we are creating will emerge rather than being pre-defined. Also, our individuality rather than any notion of a prescribed career path, journey or ladder (to cite the many existing narratives), is likely to be visible in our online processions and progressions. So maybe our virtual presence will be more real than the face we seek to present as ‘brand-me’.