I recently published a paper in the academic journal Electronic News titled “Social Media under Social Control: Regulating Social Media and the Future of Socialization.” Soon after, I saw this blog post by Todd Defren at the SmartBlog on Social Media that addresses a similar topic:
As the Millennial Generation comes online in the business world, corporate leaders will increasingly need to figure out how to deal with their young employee’s [sic] “personal brands.”
While we’ve all grown accustomed to the fact that prospective employers will be Googling us and scouring our Facebook profiles for incriminating photos, at some point the reverse will also be true: Star employees will carefully evaluate the reputation and socialstreams of their would-be employers, to determine whether they want to associate their personal brand with that of the corporation. This will only accelerate as the improving economy increases young employees’ options.
Defren’s post is a practical look at one of the major issues I address in the paper (though naturally he’s not among the five people who have probably read it!), and provides advice for corporate leaders and young professionals on how to balance the needs of the corporate brand with the need for employees to feel that their carefully constructed personal brands are still honored and valuable.
I haven’t written about this paper on my blog yet, as I was waiting for it to get published (yes, this is a problem of academic publishing; it’s been a year since I finished the paper and presented it at a conference, but it’s just now seeing print). Clearly, though, now’s the time!
Social Control in the Newsroom (or somewhere)
In the paper, I discuss how many journalism educators – like me – are encouraging students to start developing their personal brands, even as undergraduates just starting out in the field. In the past research about the socialization of journalists – the ways that professionals learn the norms, routines and culture of the field – we have always thought about socialization as beginning primarily when a journalist takes a full-time position at a news organization. The classic research by Warren Breed in 1955 on this topic suggested that a subtle process of “social control,” not explicit rule-setting, shaped new journalists’ early work and so helped them learn how to gain acceptance from superiors and colleagues. Breed, however, and the primary researchers on this issue who followed him (e.g., Gans, Tuchman), were obviously doing their work prior to the Internet and its use for personal branding.
The Internet and the new opportunities it has presented for personal expression have made it possible for what Dan Gillmor and others call “acts of journalism” to be feasible well before an individual takes a job at a news organization. For example, a young person in middle or high school can now, in theory, do “journalistic” things with a blog or a Flickr account. Journalism isn’t just something that happens during one’s adult years when one is employed as a journalist.
Job Insecurity and Corporate Needs
That’s just one factor that complicates our understanding of socialization. The other is the increasingly fluid nature of media employment and the likelihood that many of today’s young journalists will have what Mark Deuze calls a “portfolio lifestyle,” with no long-term commitment to a news organization. When a journalist’s career consists in large part of contract or freelance work, who “socializes” him or her? There’s no editor waiting day in, day out, pencil in hand, ready to socialize the newbie into the profession. There are editors, but there aren’t necessarily the kind of long-term, repetitive interactions that researchers have observed in the past as socializing forces. Add to that an ongoing sense of job insecurity and doubt, as well as the need to work in multiple media, and today’s young journalist has fewer fixed points of reference for his or her development within the norms of the profession.
[By the way, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Breed, the pioneer of research in this area, pointed out even in 1955 that the "social control" process of socialization led to a narrow understanding of the field and an "old boys' network" that restricted entry into the profession and limited news coverage in undemocratic ways. Questioning our definition of journalism and its norms - though that questioning is currently causing plenty of upheaval - is a valuable enterprise.]
Personal Branding and New Journalists
So, what does all that have to do with personal branding? Think of today’s young journalists – like many of my students – who have followed their instructors’ and mentors’ advice to develop some sort of personal brand or distinctive identity in the online world. What happens when these enterprising students do end up working for a news organization? They will have to balance their personal brands against the corporate brand, and decide how much they are willing to sublimate their personal efforts to build and maintain a distinct identity (a valuable asset, especially if they’re uncertain how long their employment will last) to the corporate brand.
The primary area where I can imagine these values (personal vs. corporate brand) clashing is in the realm of social media policies at news organizations. Though I get the impression overall these have become in many cases somewhat more liberal than they were when I first began researching the paper, it’s apparently still common for news organizations to restrict their employees’ use of social media for various reasons, including fear of appearing biased, fear of libel suits, and fear of damage to the corporate brand. However, the value of allowing an employee to maintain his or her personal brand as an asset, I would argue, is likely to become an overriding consideration in the years to come, as more young journalists whose priority is their own career survival resist corporate policies that infringe on their use of social media to sustain their personal brands.
Research and Management Implications
Two implications of these changes as a whole are that: 1) researchers must think of the socialization of journalists differently, as beginning earlier than we previously considered, and need to consider the “portfolio lifestyle” and personal brand as part of our research on journalists’ attitudes and routines; and 2) news organization managers and journalists must consider how they can let personal brands shine and enrich the corporate brand, while still meeting the needs of the larger organization.
For news organizations, this consideration likely means establishing guidelines – not strict policies – governing employees’ use of social media, and permitting individuals to use their best judgment. As Alfred Hermida notes, for example, the BBC’s new social media guidelines suggest that employees “be mindful that the information you disclose does not bring the BBC into disrepute.” These kinds of reasonable guidelines are likely to cause less strife among the journalists of the future when they seek to balance their need to maintain their personal brand with the need to contribute to a news organization’s mission.
So there’s the nearly 9,000-word scholarly paper distilled into 1,100 words! If you’re interested in the full paper, let me know; I’m happy to share it.