Even if you’ve never said the words “personal brand” out loud, guess what? You have one.
In short, your personal brand is the image you present to the world. Just as consumers have associations with product brands like Coca-Cola or Nike, hiring managers have associations with you. That’s good news, as long as you’re intentional about what you’re putting online for people to see — and bad news if you’re just sort of stumbling around, hoping for the best.
So, how can you prevent a blunder when it comes to keeping your online persona clean and professional? It’s your responsibility to be aware of how you’re projecting yourself at others. It goes way past the stray photo from a high school kegger.
Remember when you were little, and people would ask you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Now that you’re an adult with access to the internet, people don’t even have to ask. Your digital trail tells them everything they want to know about your goals … and your history. Essentially that’s what makes up your “personal brand.” It’s how you put yourself out there and how others perceive you. In our day and age, that’s a nearly 100 percent virtual (i.e., digital) existence.
You don’t have to paper the town with flyers or create a literal “whisper campaign” to generate a buzz about yourself. Instead, you can do it all from your devices (whether you’re aware of what you’re doing or not).
Almost everyone is guilty of using bad judgment every now and then. But making a comment or going on a long internet screed that’s inflammatory — even “in jest” — isn’t going to play out well for you. Recently, Harvard University rescinded an offer of admission to a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student over racist comments he made several years ago online. The Parkland, Florida student wasn’t the first to be booted out of a potential Ivy League education for things they put online.
“In 2017, the college rescinded admission offers for at least 10 applicants who had shared sexually explicit and other offensive memes and messages in a private Facebook group,” writes Patricia Mazzei in The New York Times. “Harvard informs students upon their admission that the college reserves the right to withdraw its offer for several reasons, including if an admitted student ‘engages or has engaged in behavior that brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character.'”
The student from Parkland, Kyle Kashuv, has since apologized for the comments, but the damage has been done.
You go on a wild tear and decide to do all the things in order to make your personal brand really take off. But you kind of don’t know what you’re doing. You have a website started, a blog installed and a new social media empire reserved. Only problem is: your content is all over the place. In one realm, you’re loud and outgoing, in the other, you are quiet and reserved. You say you want to lead in one place and in the other, you talk about leaving the leading to others. You say you’re very creative and unique, but nothing you put out online qualifies as either. What’s your real story, anyway?
“Being consistent across all platforms you use is important to maintain your brand while expressing your dedication to your passions and goals,” says Viviana Moreno at Her Campus. “Consistency comes into play because your personal brand should have the same ‘look’ in every platform. For example, I tend to stick to neutral tones, and that has translated into my website and Instagram profile. And no, it’s not about your color story, but it does have an effect on the overall cohesion of your personal brand.”
And again, even if you’re not “trying” to create a brand, you have already been saddled with one anyway.
“You already have a brand — regardless of whether it’s conscious or subconscious — because you’re already engaging on a number of platforms,” writes Ally Hickson at Refinery29. “Yes, your brand probably lacks cohesion and a strategy, but you’re not starting from scratch.”
“When you’re inconsistent, people learn that you can’t be trusted,” notes Sammy Blindel at How to Build a Brand. “Instead, you must build your brand (personal or corporate) by doing the same things over and over again. You make decisions based on unwavering values and others begin to see patterns that contribute to their perceptions of you. So name your values, vision and mission. Then stick to them, in everything you do.”
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Think you’re not important enough to warrant scrutiny? Think again. Employers are looking at your online presence. If you’re not paying attention, you have no idea what they might find.
“If you don’t shape your narrative, someone is going to build one for you, based on bits and pieces of information that they glimpse from your Facebook posts and tweets,” Hickson says. “There’s also a cultural aspect: a shift in our collective mindset that makes it important for you to market yourself in the way a company would choose to market its latest innovation.”
The internet (or your next boss) doesn’t care “who started it.” You are in control of how fast you type or when you choose to walk away from the craziness. Even if someone is trying to bait you by making comments on your work or just being outrageous, you really (REALLY) don’t have to respond. Think about it this way: If someone came up to you in a work meeting and told you that you were ugly, and you then punched them in the face … who do you think would get in trouble? Both of you, that’s who.
“Be as outraged as you like inside,” writes Katya Andresen at Network for Good. “Then take many deep breaths and handle it like an adult in public. Which means giving yourself a few moments of fury before moving on and handling things well. Never respond publicly online when you’re in the ‘Seriously?!?!’ or ‘How dare you?!’ mode. Ever. Walk away, jog around the block, vent to your favorite colleague. Then suck it up and deal.”
Andresen doesn’t advocate radio silence, in fact she councils against going quiet. But instead, she encourages those with an adult mind to react like adults.
“Assume responsibility broadly and be generous,” she writes. “When you do that in public, with everyone watching, you gain so much. People always appreciate those who care – and take the high road. Slinging mud back feels good for a few seconds, but it causes years of damage. Especially online, where your hot-headed response will never die.”
Spoiler alert: it isn’t. Even if you think you’ve got all your preferences set to a secret private mode, even if you lurk instead of post and even if you steer clear of social media and the internet completely — you are not living a private life. Here’s how:
“Keeping information private was possible by physical means decades ago, hence the term private space,” wrote David Garcia in a 2017 study published in ScienceAdvances. “However, the widespread adoption of information and communication technologies turns our information into a much more pervasive and diffusive element that cannot be conceived as a space or material that we can directly control.”
“Nobody wants to date, hire, or employ a fraud,” says Ryan Erskine at Entrepreneur. “Authenticity is key, both for relationships and personal brands. Don’t make the mistake of pretending to be someone you’re not.”
Don’t think of your personal brand as a dating profile where you want to “trick” someone into liking you. Think of it as a way for you to show your strengths instead of just listing them on your resume (or hoping someone hires you because you went to a certain college or have a certain job title).
In that same vein, Erskine notes, you shouldn’t try to buy friends in the form of followers for your social accounts to make yourself look more popular.
“What is more valuable to you? 500,000 fake followers or two dozen die hard fans that engage with your content every week?,” he asks. “I’ll go with the engaged followers every time. They’re much more likely to tell their friends and share your content — and to buy from you — than the 1-cent followers you bought from that dude on Craigslist.”
Leave Craigslist for vintage lamps. Take your personal branding journey on your own.
— Annie Holub
This story originally appeared on PayScale.
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