Got Some Personal Branding I Could Borrow?

IStock_000002389527XSmallWhile you were sweating over a rack of BBQ ribs on the grill this past weekend, Chris Brogan was blogging.  And on his way to writing a July 4th treatise on the emergence of mobile knowledge workers, Chris also touched on the theme of “Loosely-Joined Employees.”

“The age of half-owned brands is upon us,” Chris writes, citing Robert Scoble as the impetus for this trend.  “…Is Jeremiah Owyang about Forrester, or is he a half-owned brand that Forrester can claim for the time being?”  (emphasis added)

It’s an oft-cited maxim at SHIFT that “we run a talent agency, not a PR agency” – so Chris’s words rang true for me.  Think about some of our most recent hires: Doug Haslam (@DougH, with 4,000 Twitter followers), Chris Lynn (rockstar blogger), Amanda Gravel (blogger), Sandy Kalik (tweeter), et al. 

We’ve made many more hires than this handful, of course, and expect great things of all of them – but, specific to these “well-known” people and their personal brands?  We consider them to be “on loan” to SHIFT for the duration of their tenure.  And I expect more and more of our employees (and future employees) will have their own personal brands either well-established or on the rise.

In this scenario, what is the responsibility of the Company?  What is the responsibility of the Personality?

The Company’s responsibilities:

Job #1 – Protect itself. 

The Company can’t slavishly cater to the Personalities: it is unfair to the scores of people who work doggedly to help the Company succeed without a single thought for marketing themselves publicly.  There are plenty of hard-working, mission-critical employees who will never blog or tweet or otherwise participate with true intensity.

The Personalities must also make it clear that their writings do not necessarily reflect the opinions of their employer.  Again, the Corporation must think about the entire team.  If the Personality inadvertently causes real trouble, they won’t get much sympathy from the many colleagues whose livelihoods are now in jeopardy.

Job #2 – Get the hell outta the way.

IStock_000002788947XSmallThere’s a reason why that Personality was hired.  They are rockstars.  They are passionate and opinionated.  Let them do what they do, and empower them as much as is possible – without risking the completion of workaday assignments.  Give them a Flipcam, some tech support, whatever.  Beyond some simple guidelines about what’s OK (or not OK) to blog about, don’t censor them.  Invest and trust in their talent.

While their personal brand is affiliated with the Company’s brand, shore up the Company’s weaknesses.  Make sure that Training and Service Quality are up to snuff, so that the positives of the Personality’s brand are only augmented by the marketplace’s subsequent experiences with the Company.  This helps y-o-u, as well as the Personality.  It becomes a virtuous cycle.

The Personality’s responsibilities:

Job #1 – Stay humble.

The Personality is part of a larger entity.  Whether working in a Company with a dozen or a thousand employees, it’s critical to realize that the quiet contributions of these employees make everything else possible.  The Personality must avoid being a diva at all costs.

IStock_000005908307XSmallJob #2 – Boost the Company’s brand.

Chris tackled this topic in his own post.  It can often happen that the Personality is far better known than the Company where they are employed. 

While their brand is on-loan to the Company, it is the responsbility of the Personality to ensure that the Company derives substantial and long-lasting business benefits from the affiliation.  Yes, the Company is thrilled to be working with the Personality – and the Personality should be equally delighted for the stable income.

This promotion of the Company’s brand need not be overt nor too frequent.  But the Personality ought to find ways to talk about their work with the Company – successes, lessons learned.  Maybe post the Company’s logo to their blog in a “My Employer” section.  Post valuable content to the Company’s site and link back to it from the personal blog, etc.

The loose melding of Corporate and Personal Brands will get complicated, but, it is going to be an important part of the future of Marketing.  Better to start thinking about it now.

Posted on: July 7, 2008 at 2:24 pm By Todd Defren
17 Responses to “Got Some Personal Branding I Could Borrow?”


  • davidcushman says:

    Great post Todd – and good to have you back the saddle.
    One of the SHIFT team reached out via my blog and/or twitter recently. You’ve got some great thinking going on.

  • Dee,

    How does that bode for people like Richard@Dell and tangentially, well, us?

    I think if a company, any company, is able to anthropomorphize itself at all, assuming it’s with a ‘good person,’ that’s a good thing. Maybe there needs to be brand ambassadors to different markets (and networks) because I’m sure the same person that would do well at a SocMedClub Meetup might have a more tenuous experience at, say, a NIRI event. Yuck.


  • Great post Todd,

    Can I also mention that there’s similarities to how many organisations have made use of celebrity CEOs, scientists, sports people ex-politicians and similar well-known people over the years.

    Movie stars also work in a similar way – lending their personal brand to a movie – though some are more ‘diva’ than others.

    What social media does is slightly different however. With the examples above all of them involve some kind of ‘celebrity’ status – the figures are larger than life and in most cases unapproachable.

    With social media we have Personalities, rather than Celebrities – these are real, honest-to-god people like you and me who have a platform to speak on. They are approachable, members of the broader community, willing to admit fault and presenting a more honest face, consistent with who they really are.

    Organisations are still learning how to deal with this – any CEO can deal with a celebrity, who has power, fans, often apparently huge net worth and, most importantly, comes from the outside.

    However when it is one of the ‘worker bees’ in the company’s engine room who becomes better known than the CEO that’s a real stretch and challenge to corporate command-and-control hierarchies.

    I expect to see organisations struggle over this for years – some will wholeheartedly adopt the approach, and appropriate employees will gravitate towards them. Others will place blanket bans on staff blogging and attract the opposite type of people.

    Are transparent organisations with ‘pores’ in their skins better than those with walls of black steel – the market will tell us in time.

  • Dee Rambeau says:

    Great post…especially for a small company/agency where you are building “talent” as Shift is.

    David, with respect to your comment, I’m not sure the concept applies with publicly-traded companies…who are in fact owned by their shareholders and beholden to the company in a different way altogether. I’m not sure that there is any room at all for personal branding or even personality in those environments in this wonderful time of SOX that they live in.

  • I thought it appropriate to sign in as my corporate identity.

    It’s also a good idea to know, as personality and as company, where the boundaries are, and when an employee is which.

    In the realm of social media, I’m both Christopher S. Penn, new media guy, and Christopher S. Penn, Financial Aid Podcast and Student Loan Network.

    In the realm of marketing, I’m Christopher S. Penn, new media leader.

    In the realm of financial aid, I’m Christopher S. Penn, Financial Aid Podcast and Student Loan Network.

    The easiest way for me to decide which role I am is to think of what name badge and shirt I’d be wearing if whatever forum I was participating in was a conference. The easiest way for me to decide which name badge to wear is who’s footing the bill. If it’s Podcasters Across Borders in Canada, clearly there’s little direct financial benefit to the Student Loan Network, so it’s Christopher S. Penn, new media guy all the way, probably with a PodCamp t-shirt on.

    If I’m at the NASFAA national conference, the corporate Amex is flying like a ninja shuriken, I’m sporting the company shirt, the company name, and the company everything.

    If I’m blogging on my personal site, that bill is paid for on my personal credit card, so that blog is mine. If I’m blogging on the company site, the Amex is at work, and it’s company stuff or bust.

    Who’s footing the bill is the easiest way for me to set up contexts for operating effectively and delivering value, yet keeping my identities separate.

  • Branding and Loan (and Other PR Blog Jots)

    In a thoughtful, excellent post, Todd Defren lays out the guidelines for hiring a social media “rock star.” That is, when you have people on your staff who are well-known within a community, what are the responsibilities of the company, and what are th…

  • Great post and wonderful topic … one that comes up all the time.

    I wonder if this paradox is industry specific? I know that there would be much more issues with a biotech/pharma company … what about other publicly traded companies? Where is the line and what can a company be held responsible for and/or hold that employee responsible for …

    Sounds like some of these questions should be sent to a lawyer. Is Starr Jones tweeting?

  • Paul Bliss says:

    Absolutely brilliant – too bad by the time most big companies “get it” they’ll be too late. But I love the idea of the “brand boost” that a company gets by temporarily having a “superstar” – it makes great sense from a business and *linking* perspective as well.

    Keep up the excellent work!


  • Doug Haslam says:

    Having checked in on my team before taking the time to respond here:

    I think Chris Brogan’s case is not necessarily the norm. I certainly blog about work-related topics, but probably mix in more personal and on-work-related posts in there as well. is most certainly a personal blog, but done with the knowledge (and usually the readers) of where I work and whom I represent. That is always on my mind, even if I am blogging about my bike riding or some music I happen to like– or live-tweeting the Red Sox game.

    Other bloggers with more personal-tilted blogs also need to think about the personal/corporate brand. just because they’re cat-blogging does not mean their presence does not somehow reflect on their employer– and, for that matter, other connections.

    btw, didn’t see pingbacks in comments, but I also linked here in my response post:

  • Thanks for this Todd – this is a rather large subject right now Personal brand v Corporate Brands. I find that so many corporates are threatened by individuals within the organisation, and are opposed to their staff developing their own personal brands. Your experience and views is something I would like to share with some of my corporate clients…cheers

  • The crazy thing is, I’m living this very question at my company right now. I’m vice president and part of a team, but I’m also the “known” brand in the social media and new marketing space.

    To that end, my employers work with me ALL THE TIME on things like, “How should we work on your speaking opportunities?” And “when should something be on our company blogs versus” “Can we do both?” That kind of stuff.

    It turns out that these questions are a lot trickier than people give them credit for, and I’m really really really pleased that you put up some thoughts on this, because I didn’t really hear from many employers on this one.

    Being the brand is easy in comparison to making sure, as an employer, that the Personality (or the Talent, as TV types would say) is doing lots for the organization while leveraging their brand. It’s not easy to have both mindsets working at the same time, it turns out.

    It’s definitely on my mind. I took today off from posting because thoughts LIKE the ones you laid out above are ricocheting in my head.

    Keep up the great posting, Todd.

  • Todd Defren says:

    @Jen – It’s a Big Deal here to respect folks even if they are (gasp) ANTI social media. (Actually, there are precious few in that camp, but, still…) ;)

    @Adam – “Team before tweet” is our credo. All we ask of our Personalities is that they be mindful of the fact that they work on a team; that that team depends on them and deserves respect. When that’s top-of-mind, you don’t hear complaints from colleagues because the Personality is cognizant of their timing; the time spent; the content, etc.

    @Brian – You have the right attitude. I empathize with the pressure to “push” the corp blog, but I also see the employer’s need to “maximize” their investment in you. Finding the balance is a worthy goal.

  • Brian Block says:

    This is really great as I constantly feel the internal pressure to push my company’s blog out more through my personal brand.

    The thing is, it’s not the most breakthrough blog of our generation. It’s not something that makes you refresh the screen every 30 seconds. But I still want to push it more than anything because I’ll tell you what our blog is: A group of seasoned PR professionals who want to become engaged, comfortable and knowledgeable about a world in which they see genuine value and real communications.

    Think of it as a public practice round for a firm of great people to share with our clients and others. That’s how I feel and at this point, I don’t care if my rep suffers because it’s not the most complete blog out there. Our team is doing what Social Media experts everywhere ask people to do… give it a shot and engage.

  • Adam Zand says:

    Hi Todd,
    This is awesome! I’ve been thinking about the possible conflicting forces between the corporations/clients (i.e. the one’s who pay the bills) and the “personal brand” (not wild about the term, but it’s the “me” that has online opinions and networks).

    We’ve joked on Twitter and in-person, but I do question (especially for a PR or advertising agency) the direction of having a Doug, Sandy and Amanda on the payroll without some thought as to what their online lives entail and the possible effects for clients and colleagues. I’m just using those three as examples as you employ them and they are great people online and in-person – the analogy works for any company and individual.

    I totally understand why consultants like @Pistachio, @charise and small or new shops like @mathurrell need to push a personal brand for visibility, validation and prospecting/new biz. I still question it for established agencies and corporations.

    Just so I’m sort of clear on this point (as Sandy will attest, I’m a complicated communicator), I’m not saying DougH, Sandy and Amanda shouldn’t be “ON” and visible or that they should have any limits placed on their blogs, Tweets, podcasts. I just wonder if you as their boss thinks about “boundaries” on the time spent and content and the overall balance?

    “Be Smart” is always quoted (thanks Scoble and Microsoft) as the best corporate blogging policy along with transparency – makes perfect sense. However, I agree with you that the thinking and maybe even policies need to be discussed now as we increasingly meld the corporate and personal brand.

  • Exceptionally well written, Todd. I haven’t read Chris’s post yet, but look forward to following the conversation to see what your readers contributed. I’m sharing your post with the executive team here at PRstore.

  • Jen Zingsheim says:

    Great post Todd…I agree wholeheartedly, especially with respect to the others in the company working without thought to marketing themselves. In fact, this is one reason I’ve been so resistant to the notion that everyone *must* have a blog to understand blogging–there are plenty of people out there who truly do “get it” but are not remotely comfortable self-promoting. That doesn’t make them any less valuable as employees–in fact, in a PR firm, that might be just as much an asset as “the Personality.”

    And, regarding boosting the company’s brand–absolutely–and I like the characterization that the employee’s personal brand is “on loan” to the company. Well put.


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