Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Resolution for 2015: Value People, Not Personal Brands

Do you look as good in real life as you do in your LinkedIn profile photo?

Odds are, if you’re like me, you probably don’t.

It’s because we’re all concerned about personal branding, right?

This concept has grown in importance in recent years and reached a crescendo for me recently when I read, “How to Promote Yourself Without Looking Like a Jerk.” It’s a good article, too, filled with useful advice (SPOILER ALERT: “It’s essential to express humility”).

I was disconcerted, however, when I realized this wasn't posted on Buzzfeed; instead, it was an article in the Harvard Business Review.

There are now so many rules and demonstrated best practices that “personal branding” is taught in our classrooms, and not just for the benefit of business students. Even Kevin Hart recently schooled Sony in the concept.

But isn’t there a point when there are so many rules that they become at odds with the authenticity that’s needed to truly create a personal brand and achieve some form of influence?

In a favorite scene from the 1999 cult classic “Office Space,” a waitress and her manager at a restaurant called Chotchkie’s discuss why she is required to wear a minimum of 15 novelty buttons on her suspenders to express herself and show “flair.”


Is social media influence the 2015 version of Chotchkie’s flair, where knowledge workers and professionals are being judged and measured by Klout scores and proprietary algorithms?

I know… we should all be concerned about personal branding. It can be a necessary job skill and communications tool. I blog, I post here on LinkedIn and often on Twitter, I flat-out enjoy Instagram, I flirt with Google+. As a PR rep for a large company, I see many others doing the same.

But I also see professional journalists and writers and PR experts under greater and greater pressure to create personal brands and measurable influence.

I wonder, is all this personal branding headed for a jump the shark moment? Some monumental, irrevocable privacy hack that will make everything that comes after it seem silly?

In an age where everyone in the pack is trying to demonstrate flair, where is leadership? Perhaps it's found among those who truly inform, advocate, educate, entertain, build, repair, create, comfort or invent. And perhaps even David Ogilvy was wrong when he said if you can't be brilliant, you should at least be memorable.

I think the whole concept of personal branding has been overblown, and that the fewer personal branding rules there are, the better.

As a resolution for 2015, let me suggest a model from someone who recently spoke to the Verizon social media team.

Justin Foster, branding strategist and author of “Oatmeal v Bacon,” pointed to three universal truths that are now amplified by social media. He expressed them in the negative (one rule was, “don’t be stupid”), but I like the positive corollaries better:

  1. Be interesting.
  2. Be kind.
  3. Be smart.

If we're all trying to focus on any of these three things, I don’t think anyone would ever have to worry about their personal brands.

Oh, and one other rule… be sure to have a talented colleague like Theo Carracino snap your LinkedIn profile photo surreptitiously, and from a distance.

After all, I don’t think my smile would be authentic if I was posing.



Monday, December 22, 2014

Valuing Everything Bright and Hopeful

I can’t stop reading the news lately. All the senseless deaths, all the bitter words, all the threats.

I find myself obsessed, and mesmerized, by black-and-white words on electronic screens and in newsprint.

Is the world really spiraling out of control?

Earlier this morning, I was looking through recent photos on my cell phone, intending to post something on Twitter (despite everything, you have to keep up appearances, right?) when I noticed all the bright colors surrounding me.

I felt as if I had been suddenly snapped out of hypnosis.

Even in the photos I took at work — an interconnected hive of office space neighboring a vast tract of New Jersey swampland — I saw signs of hope.

There’s a Christmas tree with dozens of donated toys. There are otherwise bland cubicles strung with holiday lights. There’s the stuffed lion wearing a Penn State sweater I bought for our Secret Santa swap, and the miniature gold Notre Dame helmet I received in return.

As I continued to flip through the photos, I was astounded by all the beauty.

There are the smiling faces at the dinner with colleagues from work, and photos of festive Morristown Green outside… the first gathering of friends from my daughter’s barn… the warm hospitality of our end-of-year IABC-NJ board meeting… houses decorated with lights… gift-wrapped packages… photos of family members coming home… my wife with her arm around our daughter, wearing a red dress, before they left yesterday on their annual outing to see “The Nutcracker.”

I value all the people who shine so brightly, and I am grateful for all the colors that surround me. They fill me with hope and inspiration and light, even in the world’s darkest hours.



Monday, December 8, 2014

How Long Until the Elmos Show Up at Ground Zero?


I visited the 9/11 Memorial for the first time yesterday morning.

Not long after the terrorist attacks, I saw a chilling bird's eye view of the site through a gaping hole in the side of Verizon's building at 140 West St., which had been damaged by the collapse of Building 7.

Some force kept me from visiting the memorial sooner, but the recent openings of the museum and One World Trade Center all but shamed me into standing at the foot of the void.

I can prove I was there too. While I was at looking at the names inscribed in bronze around the perimeters of the two memorial pools, I found myself inadvertently in the background of more than a dozen people taking smiling selfies.

Of course, much has already been written and discussed about this phenomenon. But to see it in person was a bit like peeking again through that gash in the side of the building in 2001.

These weren't "I was here" poses. These were people extending expensive cell phones high in the air on selfie sticks and playfully mugging for the camera. Lovers were hugging each other with big smiles on their faces. A group of young women wearing fake tiaras were capping the previous night's birthday celebration with a group portrait. All that seemed missing was someone posing with Elmo or one of the other costumed characters who roam Times Square.

It's not that I'm against selfies. I take more than my share. There are countless photos posted on the @Sept11Memorial Twitter account that strike a respectful and balanced tone.

Posted here is a photo I took yesterday morning of Michael S. Baksh's name. On Sept. 11, 2001, my wife was teaching where his children went to school. He died on his first day at work as an insurance executive at Marsh & McLennan.

I have to believe that people, in their hearts, know that some things are still sacred. If you believe that too, please take a moment today to say a prayer for Michael Baksh and his family.