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How to Take the Cringe Out of Personal Branding
Aliza Licht's new book discusses the necessity of personal branding, with a guide to doing it both online and off.
Every so often, I’m invited to speak to college students about fashion journalism. The media business is changing so much so quickly that the advice I would have given just a few years ago no longer applies. When I tell my own career story now, I find myself prefacing nearly every resume bullet with, “Well, I guess THIS doesn’t really work this way anymore, but...”
A lot of media itself doesn’t even exist anymore. BuzzFeed News closed a few weeks ago. This week, MTV News shut down. Vice Media, once valued at $5.7 billion, is reportedly about to be bought out of bankruptcy for $400 million. Insider recently laid off 10 percent of its staff. And that’s just the last month’s lowlights.
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So, what does one say to idealistic young people considering a media career? The industry wasn’t this bad when I started out in 2007, but it was certainly on the decline. Someone 20 years older than me with a lot more seasoning and sense could have come to one of my classes and told us that we should study finance or marine biology as a backup — or just run clear in the other direction of any newsroom offering us work.
But I also remember what it was like to be one of those ambitious, not-tired, idealistic young people. So I resist telling them, “I hear consulting can be great! People like business school!” I’ve started recommending that college kids get on TikTok and just start talking about fashion, or whatever journalistic beat interests them. What I’m really saying is: build your personal brand now, because it may be all you can ever hold onto in this business. For decades, you could have a great editorial or fashion career without a public personal brand. I’m no longer convinced that’s the case.
When I graduated with a journalism degree, I certainly didn’t fantasize about making short-form social media videos. But after I left my last corporate media staff job and wrote ANNA: The Biography, I realized something stupidly late in the game. I had spent my entire career building online audiences for companies I didn’t own. Why on earth hadn’t I done the same thing for myself?
I had worked so hard on ANNA, through two childbirths and one cancer diagnosis, that I was determined to do everything I could to make it a success. So in 2021, after many years of cringing at self-promotion (I am also shy and introverted and it has never come naturally to me), I finally got over myself. I ordered a ring light and a tripod. I downloaded TikTok and studied videos that performed well. I learned how to use a video editing app. And I started posting and figured out how to grow a following. I still hear from people who found out about my book on TikTok. Maybe you even found out about this newsletter there.
I know TikTok is, like all social media platforms, deeply flawed. I know a lot of journalists dismiss it because it’s filled with talking heads who aren’t traditional experts. Fair enough. But I also can’t help but think of Anna Wintour. She has remained in her job by staying just enough ahead of the curve to maintain both her own and Vogue’s relevancy. Her attitude has always been: look forward and just go. In a recent episode of Succession, Gerri told Roman that Matsson’s money would “wash you away.” I think that’s true of technology and pop culture, too, for many professions. Stay behind, and you risk being subsumed.
Aliza Licht is someone who figured out the power of a personal online brand much earlier than me. When fashion blogging was in its early days in 2009, she became the anonymous voice of DKNY PR Girl on Twitter, grew the account to hundreds of thousands of followers, and ran it until the brand decided to close it in 2015, the same year she published her first book Leave Your Mark: Land Your Dream Job. Kill It in Your Career. Rock Social Media. After more than 17 years at the company, Licht left Donna Karan, and pivoted to creative brand marketing and digital strategy. She just published her second book On Brand: Shape Your Narrative. Share Your Vision. Shift Their Perception.
“I hate to say it, but without a personal brand, you’re flying on a trapeze without a net,” Licht writes. “Now more than ever, it can influence the opportunities presented to you or handed to someone else. We’ve all seen it happen — someone less deserving gets awarded an opportunity over someone else more worthy and possibly even more talented. Because it’s not just about your abilities, it’s also about who you are, who you know, and their perception of you.”
So much of what Licht says in this book I’ve found to be true to my experience both working at media companies and now working for myself as a journalist-entrepreneur. Licht also has advice for people who don’t want a public profile but still have personal brands by sheer virtue of existing in a workplace. And she offers tips for people thinking about pivoting careers.
I spoke to Licht recently about her book, the evolution of fashion brands on social media, and more. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
I think a lot of us hear “personal brand” and think that just applies to whatever we do with our social media accounts. But you take a much more expansive view.
I think this is where people get confused — you’re making an impression in every single thing you do: when you log onto a Zoom meeting, when you show up in person, when you send an email. People don’t take the time to think, What am I trying to say here?
What do you want people to say about you when you’re not in the room?
Let’s go back to May 2009 when you launched DKNY PR Girl. It seems quaint now to talk about a fashion brand with a Twitter feed, but it was a big deal at the time.
There wasn't a blueprint. Brands were very, very uncomfortable sharing anything that was behind-the-scenes and not buttoned-up, in addition to the fact that you really didn't hear from anyone who wasn't the designer or the spokesperson of that brand. So the idea of DKNY PR Girl as a voice for a brand within a brand that had a founder was pretty wild. One of the things that I learned early on by doing is that it was really more effective to share the behind-the-scenes of my job in PR versus trying to actually sell something. “Here's what really happens during award season with stylists and celebrities.” Or, “Here's how a fashion show gets produced.” No one was doing that, and DKNY PR Girl was really that fly-on-the-wall view into a world that was pretty closed-off.
How does the way fashion brands approach social media today compare to 2009?
I've always said that social media is called social media because you need to be social. And a lot of brands today still use it as a broadcast medium versus a way to actually have a conversation with their community.
If someone has all social media accounts on private, are they exempt from personal public branding?
For people that have maybe an Instagram, but they're private, that still counts because your bio is showing up publicly. I share in the book a story about someone I knew who went on a rant on her private Facebook page, and she just forgot among her 5,000 friends was a Page Six reporter, and it ended up in the paper. There really isn't such a thing anymore as “my private life,” “my professional life.”
I get the sense that a lot of people are pulling back from social media now that we have seen so many unfortunate examples of how “you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.” Tweets that come back to haunt people, and so forth.
People are pulling back. But I wouldn't have [written] either of these books without my social presence. A lot of what I do speak about on social media either becomes an idea for an article or leads to a media inquiry. So you can be strategic about it. I also think that no one ever said that you need to put your entire life on social media to be successful. Understand what you want to put out there versus what you want to keep sacred. I see my social strategy as: what can I put online that actually is gonna be of benefit to somebody else?
For people who just can’t do social media, either because it would be frowned upon by their employers or because they’re just not sharers, what advice do you have for them?
Sometimes, like in a corporate setting, if someone's like, “I really wish my boss knew I did this thing,” why not lean on a trusted colleague and say, “In our next meeting, would you be able to like dangle that thing I did? And then if you want me to amplify something, let me know.” Or maybe ask a friend to share online on your behalf. You just have to be able to communicate to someone you trust, “This is important to me to get out in the world, but I really am so uncomfortable. Would you be able to help me?” And that is what a lot of people do.
How do social media algorithms figure into personal branding?
I go through this in the book as painlessly as possible because the algorithm is something that we can't ignore. You need to give the platform what the platform is looking for. So when Instagram first introduced Reels, and we knew that they were introducing Reels because of TikTok, that means your static photo is not going to do the same thing that it once did. Whenever a new tool is introduced within an app, that is the first thing you should test out because that is what the platform wants you to do.
But your own website, your own portfolio is the only place on the internet where you have a hundred percent share of voice that isn't controlled by an algorithm. And collecting email addresses, making sure that you are actually able to get in touch with the people who like your content. That is the only audience you actually own. Everything else is rented. A lot of people are like, “Oh, I just do Instagram.” Or, “I just do TikTok.” Well, if those platforms go away, then what?
What do you advise people not to do on social media?
Anyone who is just talking about themselves all day and never amplifying or promoting anyone else, I think that gets really, really tiresome, and people really start to root against you. In the book I have a five-to-one ratio — for every win you share, amplify five other people.
I think now people want expertise more than ever on social media, too.
They do. And if you're sharing something that's going to educate or entertain or inspire or motivate or give insider information, that's different than just talking about, “Look how great I am. Look what I just did. Look at my house. Look at my cars. Look at my new outfit.”
Some people are going to read this book and think, But what about someone like Elon Musk who doesn’t seem to worry about his reputation, is a total loose cannon on social media, yet is still wildly successful?
Well, that goes into the “Zero Fucks Given” branding chapter of the book. So we can think of Anna Delvey or Donald Trump or Elon Musk. They will cultivate the same amount of haters as they do lovers and they are comfortable with that. And I think that anyone will tell you, the more controversial you are online, the bigger a following you will build. The question becomes, is that something that is on-brand for you? Is it worth it at any cost? Some people have the stomach to really toe the line of like, This is who I am and I don't care if you like it — take it or leave it. But that is not for everyone. That's certainly not for me.
Earlier in Back Row: Let There Be Spon Con
A lot of people in all kinds of industries find themselves amassing a social media following only to then have their employers try to police their social media work. In media, for instance, some companies don’t want their editors selling brand deals on their personal Instagram feeds, which I get because they don’t want to compete with their employees for ad dollars. But a lot of editors also feel like these companies don’t pay well enough or provide enough job security to tell people not to do it. What do you suggest in these situations?
Understand your company's media policy and your company's social media policy, and then you can decide how you handle it. I believe that in today's world, companies should not control what you are doing. Your name is not on the door. I think every single person has a responsibility to build equity in their name.
If you are getting brand deals with advertisers that could be going to your company, that becomes a scenario in which I believe you should have a very frank conversation with the people that are in charge of your progress at that company and say, “Listen, this is what's happening. How can we find a way to work together where this benefits the company?” Those are hard conversations to have. I'll give you an example. When I was approached to write, Leave Your Mark in 2013 when I was still DKNY PR Girl, I took this book deal to the company and said, “I can tell the story of my career and building this social media presence without mentioning DKNY, but I think it would be a great benefit to DKNY to be part of the story. But it's up to you.” And they were like, “No, you can mention DKNY.”
Sometimes the rubber does meet the road where you get too big and you do need to move on. A lot of people's personal brands only bring more credibility to the companies they work at, and if companies can see that value, it's a win-win. If they can't see the value, that's on them.
Back Row is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.