Who are you?

The first week of my Personal Branding class at Georgetown, I ask my students:  Who are you?

To begin the real work of personal branding, and get to the core of who we are, I tell them:

  • You are not your job title
  • You are not your affiliation with an employer
  • You are not your passion
  • You are not all the things you've failed at.

Your personal brand isn't "I'm a PR manager" or "Wine and cheese is my passion".  (barf)  Your personal brand isn't "I'm divorced."  It's also not, "I'm a government wonk."

Your personal brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room.

When we think about what that means, we need to reframe how we think about and talk about ourselves.

When I'm not in the room, I wouldn't want someone to describe me as "oh, she does marketing for a tech company."  Why?  Because tens of thousands of other people do that.  That's not memorable.  That doesn't set me apart.

So, I work with my students to identify their functions, attributes, strengths, emotional appeal, and differentiators.

  • Functions: What do I do? What services do I offer?
  • Attributes: What are the characteristics or qualities that describe me?
  • Strengths: What am I good at? What am I known for being good at?
  • Emotional Appeal: How do I make people feel?
  • Differentiators: What sets me apart and makes me memorable?

Every semester I have taught this class -- EVERY SEMESTER -- at least one student says, "there's nothing memorable about me" or "I have no idea what sets me apart".  At least 5 other students nod in the affirmative.  I used to want to just hug them and tell them it will be okay ... but now, hearing that makes me excited.  Why?  Because I know that person is going to have a pretty damn remarkable semester in my class digging deep and finding out what sets them apart from others.  Because it's there.  They just don't know it yet.  When we find it (and we always do), it's magic.  I wish you could see it.  The energy and momentum that comes from it is infectious.

I don't use the word "unique" in my class.  I think it's unnecessary in personal branding.  When I see personal branding presentations or articles with the words "unique value proposition" I automatically know two things: 1) that person's personal brand is Boring King of Finger-Guns City and 2) they are not in my tribe.  Using "unique value proposition" is the kind of marketing gobbledygook that turns people off from the whole exercise of figuring out what they're great at doing, how they can pursue those talents in myriad ways, and how they talk about themselves and interact with the world around them.  Our DNA makes us unique.  But in terms of talents, skills, values, and experiences, "unique" is not what we're going after.  We're going after what makes us memorable ... what makes people want to engage with you when they meet you or have heard about you.  What makes you magnetic.  What helps you find your tribe.

For one student, her memorable moment was that she had her pilot's license before she could drive a car.  For another student, it was having written and submitted a spec script for "How I Met Your Mother" (which never got used, but the very action of doing it is a fun story and shows part of that student's personality and gumption that might not have shown up in a regular networking conversation).  Yet another student had done more than 100 drops out of a helicopter in the military ... didn't seem interesting to her, but in conversation with others it made her memorable and also kind of a badass.

So, who are you?






On Being a Teacher

Yesterday I wrote about my desire to, in some way, feel like a student ... to find something new I wanted to learn, and feel excited and challenged about discovering new things I'm capable of doing, or might fail miserably at.

Today, I want to write about what it feels like to teach.  Teaching is one of the many things I do in my career, and I am grateful for the opportunity to walk the hallowed halls of Georgetown University, working with graduate students in PR and Journalism.

My first experience in teaching was in 2006 in Johns Hopkins' grad school, after which I moved over to teach at Georgetown in 2007.  I taught PR writing for a few years, as well as a class called The Power of Opinion, where my students wrote and submitted op-eds and letters to the editor each week, and they all got published in major media outlets.  My PR practice went BOOM, so I took a break from teaching for a bit, returning in 2014 to teach a class called Personal Branding.

Yeah I rolled my eyes, too, the first time I heard those words.  It sounds so ::pew-pew:: winky-finger-guns, doesn't it?  Barf.  I made it my personal mission to make the class NOT barfy and, instead, work with students on their personal brands, and understand what that really means.  

Personal branding is not a logo, a tagline, or an elevator speech (the ultimate in barf).  

Your personal brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room.  If 10 people in a room have 10 different perceptions of you, then there's something going on in the authenticity department.  It's my job, as a teacher, to help my students peel off all those layers and be who they are and teach them how to build meaningful relationships that make our communities and our world a better place.

Here's the thing: PR people are good at what they do because they love molding, shaping, and promoting others.  We are great behind the scenes, making shit happen, and keeping our clients in the spotlight.  Same goes for journalists.  Great reporters are good at what they do because they're telling other people's stories.  Ask them to tell their own, and they will self-deprecate beyond belief and deftly turn the tables and begin asking more questions so as to not talk about themselves.

The reason we're good at doing PR or being a journalist is because we spend very little time on ourselves, and all our time on our clients, products, employers, and interview subjects.  We're great at shaping others' stories, but have no idea what our own story is.

So, for two hours each week, my students come into a cocoon where they think only about themselves.  In my classroom, we are not our work titles.  We are not what others tell us we should be.  We are not the children of our parents.  We strip all that away and think about who we are, how we're perceived, what our skills and talents are, what we are best at doing (at our core), and what we ultimately want to achieve.  We talk, we write, we figure it out, and we get it done.

It's a tough class.  It's frustrating and deep and introspective (if done right).  On the flip side, it's surprising and rewarding to find out what we love to do and what we're good at when we finally stop "should-ing" all over ourselves.  It makes us better communicators overall, and helps us move forward in our careers and in life in sometimes unexpected ways.

On Being a Student

I had dinner in January with my friend, Adrian, an actor in NY.  He said 2015 was his year to be a student of something.  We talked about how in both our careers we're expected to know a lot, compete for business, perform at a high level, and mentor others.  He thinks, and I agree, that it's also important for us to be lifelong learners.

PR people, especially, need to pay attention to this.  We are good at our jobs because we're all about putting others first: our clients, our products, our jobs, others' needs.  We're good at learning what we need to know to do our jobs well, but we're not always really good at setting aside dedicated time to learn something just for the sake of being an awesome, happy human being.

I made a list a few months ago of the things I wanted to "be a student of."  It ranged from drum lessons to a master gardener certificate to American Sign Language training and everything in between.  Since the day after Labor Day feels more to me like the new year than January 1 does, I'm hoping to go back to school later this month in something I'd like to know more about.

Ragan Communications published this piece today about this very topic:

Why and how communicators should be lifelong learners

I'm going to take some time over the upcoming three-day weekend to sit quietly and think about what it is I'd like to spend some time learning in the coming year or two.  

What would you like to be a student of?

All behold the wonder that is Stephen King

Cujo had me convinced our family's dumb, fluffy sheepdog, Chessie, was going to murder me in my sleep.

Listening to audio version of The Mist was a bad idea, driving on a dark, foggy night on a winding interstate through the mountains.

While not a fan of the horror genre as a whole, there is no denying Stephen King is one of the greatest writers of our time.

I finally got around to reading Stephen King: The Rolling Stone Interview and highly recommend it.

Moreso, I recommend you read (or listen to, because dude narrates it himself) On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft because it's better than getting an MFA in writing.  

The man is a master.  No two ways about it.


Do You Ommmmmmmmmm?

I don't talk about it a lot because, well, I don't know ... I just don't.

But I have a little secret to tell you.  I meditate.  In the morning just after waking up and walking the dog, before drinking coffee, starting to write, or scanning the morning headlines, I sit quietly on a chair in the living room, in very low light, and do my thing.  My neighborhood is silent at that hour (I'm an early riser), and I'm able to really sink into it for a good 25-30 minutes.

Sometimes, I'll do it again in the late afternoon around 4:30 or 5 when I feel my energy waning but know I have metaphorical miles to go before I sleep.

The Washington Post: Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain

People approach meditation in different ways and through different teachers or channels.  Some have come to appreciate meditation by learning TM or through the works of Pema Chodron, or a local teacher, therapist, or meditation center.  Others use apps like Headspace or Simply Being.

Meditation is different for everyone.  People approach it for different reasons and desire varied outcomes.  I meditate because it prepares and organizes my brain for the day.  It doesn't "zone me out" or make me all hippie-dippy-peace-y.  For me, meditation makes my brain almost like that scene in "Terminator 2" where the T-1000 goes from frozen shards to molten pools coming together as a whole complete being ready for action.  [NOTE: This is in no way implying I am a shapeshifting polymorphic robot assassin, mind you.  I use my powerful forces for good. Mostly.]

Forbes: 7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change the Brain

Since beginning meditation, I'm a more strategic thinker, an even more efficient and driven business owner, a calmer driver, a kinder human, and have more energy to live the kind of life I love.  I am not a religious or spiritual person and I do not believe in a higher power.  I have worked with The Dalai Lama, but our work together on an event in New York did not in any way inspire me to meditate.  Back then, even watching and trying to learn from the master, meditating (or trying to) stressed me out.  I couldn't do it.

Years later, because I approached it with authentic intent and a need to start my days with greater energy, meditating came very easily to me.  I didn't do it because I thought I had to.  Or that it would change my life (or that I even wanted to change my life).  In my work and my life, I need to switch gears many times a day and be ready to manage whatever crises are thrown at me while still running a conference call, writing an op-ed, spending time with family and friends, and building an advocacy coalition.  To be even better at this than I already am, I wanted to make sure I had at least one half-hour chunk to start off my day that was solely for me and no one else.  That's why I chose meditation.

I initially learned how to meditate through a TM teacher, and a few follow-up sessions with a meditation teacher in Los Angeles where I spend time for work.  Some friends have said their workplaces encourage meditation to kick off meetings (which I think is just so weird because meditation is so personal and not for everyone).

Do you meditate?  Have you ever tried to?  Did you know Jerry Seinfeld and Howard Stern are big TM devotees?

YouTube: Transcendental Meditation with Howard Stern and Jerry Seinfeld

I'll be honest:  the whole TM thing feels a little too cult-y for me.  I learned from a TM teacher, but I don't go to their centers or espouse their philosophy or approach.  I think every person needs to figure out what works for them should they choose to find some silent time to let go of cares and worries, and let those Tetris blocks in our brains fall into perfect order.

You gotta read: Leave Your Mark (Aliza Licht)

I wanna jump up and down and hug and high-five and chest-bump Aliza Licht and take her out for all the cocktails in the world.  Why?

She's written a MAGNIFICENT book about building a career, making your mark, and playing the long game.  The PR world has long needed a book like this, and the lessons within are applicable to any career, really.

Buy it; you won't regret it.
Leave Your Mark: Land Your Dream Job. Kill It in Your Career. Rock Social Media.

Highlights include:

On being mentored and mentoring others

Why parents need to step the hell off

Work, work work, and then work some more

Do more than what is asked of you

Be an open, authentic communicator


I've bought this book as gifts for young women and men graduating high school and college this year, as well as a few 20somethings just getting started in their careers.  Honestly, I have a few 30- and 40something friends who need this book, too.  Perhaps Amazon will have to make a few anonymous deliveries.   :)

When PR Week Uses Your Tweets for a Story

Here's a little lesson that everything you write on Twitter is public, even if you think it's just a conversation between two friends.  

My social media content is an extension of me, and I am generally not a jerk or a hair-trigger troll.  I am unabashedly myself on Twitter, so I don't ever have to stay up late at night worrying about a Tweet or other social media post.  If I think something could be misinterpreted or taken out of context, I don't Tweet it.  It's that simple.

The week of the May 2015 Amtrak derailment, my friend and fellow PR pro Erin Hennessy and I were "talking" on Twitter about how disappointed we were in Amtrak's handling of the crisis, particularly on social media.  PR Week magazine did a round up of how top PR pros were talking about the crisis on social media, and our back and forth made the cut:

PR Week: Crisis communicators skewer Amtrak's crash response on Twitter

Erin and I (and countless others) wondered how a passenger transportation company's PR team didn't have canned statements and social content at the ready to customize and communicate almost instantly given any kind of accident, crisis, or catastrophe.  Even in client organizations I think are at low risk for crisis, we still do a crisis plan.  It's just good practice.

How Amtrak fumbled so badly, I'll never understand.  I want to believe their PR team is strong and talented, and were beating their heads against the wall because they couldn't get approval on statements or strategy.  Still, PR pros shouldn't have to wait that long for others to give a green light.  PR pros need to and must be among the decision-making team during a crisis (and every other aspect of the business).

The key to having strong crisis comms is for the PR team to have solid relationships with the lawyers and C-suite at all times, always always always.  There has to be trust and open, proactive planning and communications. PR pros need to befriend the legal team ... bring lunch to the ops staff ... take the IT guys and gals out for drinks ... maintain open dialogue with media ... because building up the trust bank before a crisis happens means you have ready reserves when the fit hits the shan, as they say.  It's rare, but when it happens it's magic, and crises are handled exponentially better than when those relationships don't exist.

Clearly, that wasn't the case at Amtrak.  And, like I wrote in my Tweet -- I'd love to work with them on crisis planning, more open and trustworthy communication, identifying key decision makers, and rapid readiness.  Many times, there's not a lot to say, or few details to provide.  Still, silence (or a tone-deaf Tweet) is never the answer. 

I'm not old enough to join AARP, but they still want my advice!

Hey. We all make mistakes.  Personally, professionally, somewhere in between.  We're human.  

In my awesomely fun and very busy PR career, I've made some professional (and personal) blunders along the way.  Thankfully, with the help of amazing mentors and work colleagues, I learned very early on that you can't run, you can't hide.  You have to step up, address what you did or what happened, do what you can to fix it or find a solution for next time, and move on and let your next great bit of work adjust your mojo.

Kara Baskin of AARP's "Life Reimagined" reached out to me for some advice on how to reverse a big misstep.  The article is here:
AARP Life Reimagined: How To Reverse a Big Misstep

In the piece, I talk about:
- the importance of friends and colleagues
- how to inoculate yourself against rivals and enemies
- why you can't burn bridges or be a jerk
- acknowledging difficult conversations but having them anyway
- why gossip has GOT to go

Have you ever made a big mistake?  Screwed something up?  Got yelled at?  Pissed off a co-worker or boss? 

How did you handle it?