Building Personal Brands through Social Media

By David Kamerer, Loyola University Chicago

Students in my public relations writing class are assigned to write 12 blog posts during the semester. While we use many social media tactics in the class, blogging requires the largest time commitment. Some complain about the assignment.

“What should I write about?” ask others.

My answer is that they should write about their professional passion and to do it well.

A well-written blog is a powerful tool in the arsenal of a beginning professional. First, it shows the student can write and can do basic digital production work, things like placing a photo on the page or embedding a video. Writing a blog forces the student to connect with the profession at it’s highest level. It communicates the student can start a project and stick with it. And it provides breadcrumbs to help make the student findable by Google and other search engines.

By clicking the “publish” button, the writer takes the work beyond the classroom, where it can be seen by anyone in the world with a web connection. The process is empowering.

It’s important to guide students as they select their topics. Many instinctively just open their edit window and start tossing thoughts in. Often, these are the very students who claim they have nothing to say. And inevitably, they prove it.

So I ask them to follow influential five blogs in their field and to react to these thought leaders’ posts. A good place to find advertising, public relations and new media blogs is the Advertising Age Power 150, a list of the most popular blogs in the field ( Here’s an example of a post that started on one of these blogs: Josh Bernoff, co-author of Groundswell, wrote about the end of the “golden age” of the Internet and the start of the “splinternet,” caused by the need to optimize content presentation for so many different devices. A student read that post, and then tied the launch of Apple’s iPad to this concept, discussing both display issues as well as the iPad’s lack of Flash support. He showed his connection to an expert, demonstrated technological sophistication by taking on the topic, and advanced the concept through breaking news.

Students build their online reputations over time through strategic use of social media tools. While the blog may be the most important, it’s but one piece. In the first writing assignment, each student creates a Google Profile. This is a free tool that lets you identify yourself, tell your story, post a picture and share important links. Significantly, Google Profile results usually turn up on the first page of Google search results, achieving one of the goals of personal branding: findability. When an employer does a background search on a prospective employee, the Google Profile can help distinguish this John Doe from all the other John Does.

Being findable is a good start. Next, students must create a compelling body of work online. Some purchase domains and create elaborate portfolios; most also create content by using Twitter, Facebook, Delicious, YouTube, Flickr or other tools. Others earn bylines on a newspaper or student publication; or perhaps gain credit for work done through internships. Throughout, the emphasis is on strategically building the personal brand through focused, high-quality content. This is an ongoing effort that can only be partially addressed in one semester. In the end, though, students can show through social media what they can only tell on their résumés.

Social media tactics extend learning opportunities to outside the classroom, creating an ongoing dialog with students. As I find noteworthy resources or discover relevant news, I bookmark links on my Delicious account or share them on Twitter. I also blog trends or important events (“United Breaks Guitars” or “Motrin Moms,” for example) to facilitate class discussion.

Social media tactics are pervasive in the last third of the writing class. In the unit on “real-time web” we compare live tweeting with CoverItLive, taking turns moderating the sessions. In one class, students learn to write for Twitter, writing a timed exercise in which they summarize Gone with the Wind or Harry Potter, give directions, or list a recipe in 140 characters or less. Students then learn about search engine optimization, performing keyword analysis and then writing search-friendly press releases. In the following week, they create a social media press release using PitchEngine.

In the end, our job as teachers remains the same: to prepare our students for life, but also for their first opportunity. The traditional public relations planning model (research, planning, implementation, evaluation) is still the cornerstone of our curriculum. On one level, social media are just new tactics, capable of reaching new audiences but still fitting in the planning model.

Some say, “Google never forgets.” For a student just getting started in the field, that’s a good thing. Over a few semesters, a student can create a compelling body of work online. And along the way, learn the fundamentals of public relations.

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