Authentic YOU, Authentic Company: personal vs. corporate brand strategy

Observations are often obvious. Here’s one to start us: It’s a new era in communications, socialization, marketing, and certainly in relationship building and management.

Recently @mariansalzman posted a tweet querying where the future of political campaigning is headed in the U.S. She ponders, “#pnid If candidates are brands, what attributes will resonate in local elections ’09? Change overused? Issues vs. values? Role of vision?”  And while there are potentially thousands of viable responses to this question, what I think she’s really getting at is what will ring as authentic with the public when it comes to our leadership in the coming years.

That’s not in-and-of-itself a new thing – for generations, Americans have elected candidates that they probably would have agreed were (seemingly) authentic. But apparently, how we define authenticity shifts over time. The attributes that make up authentic character, and authentic relationship, are murky – at least that seems to be the idea here.

A recent article that ran online at FastCompany, by Christopher Meyer also digs into the notion of defining individuals as brands these days – and that means interesting things for PR folks.

How important is it to manage not just your organization’s brand equity, but the brand equity of your leadership and other related “star” talent at work within the culture of your organization and among your audience?

Meyer suggests the answer to this is really nothing short of blatantly ironic as the consumer public demands increasing authenticity and “de-brand-personality” from major brands, but is intrigued by the brand identity of celebrated personalities.

How much should the personal brand management of your organization’s leadership figure into your overall public relations strategy? And as social media leaps forward and pulls your CEO willingly (or unwillingly) into the extremely exposed public square, does it really matter if you don’t think personal brand should figure in your greater PR equation? Because the fact is, it does.

Working for a non-profit as I do, it’s pretty important that our organization define its overall personality as separate from individuals, and define oursevles most significantly by our mission. However, people are mission in action. Our leadership, and a variety of high profile characters on our team are de facto living expressions of brand – and if we don’t engage our audience with them as individuals, it can get dicey. So for us, it’s a delicate balance of mission vs. hubris, personal passion vs. collective effort.

Meyer posits a gleeful concept of a new corporate job, that of personal brand manager. And I am sure there are some folks already paid handsomely to do that … and many of us do it already because that’s what you do when you introduce your organization into new relationships, and nurture it in its long-time relationships. You manage it as if it is a person, and you manage the leadership as if they are the brand itself.

Here are some things to consider when building personal brand for your organization’s leadership and shining stars that adds equity to your corporate identity:

1. Keep it real. Frightenly, words like “authentic” and “sincere” lack all illusion of genuineness (to me) these days. But in the best sense, and whenever possible, leadership needs to really communicate in their own voice. Sure the PR person can coach and edit, and offer insight – but particularly when it comes to today’s social media applications, it has to be genuine if it’s going to really work. I hand my CEO cards for presentations all the time, and he does a great job of staying on pitch – but guess what? He never reads my notes verbatim, and I’ve decided not to be annoyed by that! He needs to be him – and it’s my job to help coach him on the circumstances, the players, the key themes – and then help him shine as he personally relates to the circumstance. GM is about to take this on in a new way with its decision to put brash, bodacious Bob Lutz in place as its communications big chief. I appreciate the challenge Lutz will bring to his own PR staff, and he seems to recognize the stress he’s going to put them under if his comments in today’s USA Today are any indication: 

And although he’ll be overseeing communications, Lutz says he expects the public relations department also still will need to keep tabs on him and what he says publicly.”I expect people to step in,” he says. “But having said that, I do believe we have to be much bolder and much more self-aware, and in some cases, more controversial or willing to tell it like it is rather than putting out a more sanitized version.”

 When it comes to managing real personal brand, you gotta keep it real, but careful so that it doesn’t unwittingly (or arrogantly) capsize all you’ve worked to build for the total brand.

2. Access. Access. Access. Good PR earns it’s spot at the CEO’s table, and keeps it by providing pragmatic, useable insight that works. If your organization has leadership that wants to leverage the power of personal brand – the PR folks should have access to them to discuss openly how that can support the larger communications goals of the organization. You have to know your communications theory, and offer solid strategy that fuels what matters most to the organization – your own PR styled ROI. Trust means: leadership will listen when you offer them strategy for how best to leverage their personal strengths (and even professed “growth edges”) on behalf of the organization. A perplexing example of how a personal brand campaign doesn’t clearly jive with the total strategy is seen in Sprint’s ads with CEO Dan Hesse. They are unique, but I’m not terribly sure what having his personal endorsement means to me as I consider Sprint in today’s mobile media market. There needs to be a larger strategy, personal branding needs to fit the total goal, and the PR person needs direct access to leadership to blend it all together.

3. If you’re going to be social, do it right. Just because individuals can have a Twitter, Facebook, or Blog doesn’t mean it’s the right media for their voice and style. The old addage, “media is the message” is accurate, and part of what that means is understanding how media selection amplifies or distorts messages. If your leadership is absolutely not naturally narrative, figure out ways to blog that showcases their practical style. If they are not naturally pithy or concise, maybe Twitter isn’t their niche. Use the tools that will work, and do it with excellence.

4. Diversify your strategy. Good PR is comprehensive. Don’t bank on any one component as the golden ticket for long-term positive brand messaging. Leadership changes: tragedy, scandal, and plain old career change shifts the style and tone of an organization. Make sure that on whatever your key message is built, you have other adequate blocks shoring up your overall strategy. Be smart. Great leaders come and go, missions (if they are something people connect with on personal and philosophical levels) last. Build relationships that will, too.

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