I think I’ve articulated how I feel about conscious efforts at “personal branding” before–if you have to put a lot of effort into it, your work may be lacking–but the question of whether it’s important generally has come up a couple of times in the MFA class I teach, and in talks to j-school students, so below are some thoughts. I don’t think you need to spend a lot of time and energy on cultivating your “personal brand”, which in my experience, means everything from the way people perceive you socially to whether you have every available eponymous social media handle on the Internet to what sort of name recognition you get in your chosen field. But I think there’s a minimum amount of work you have to do to make sure that people looking to recruit you get a sense of your best work and what you’re aiming to do in the long term.
1) If you’re just starting out and don’t have a big body of work yet, or a recognizable name, you probably need something on the Internet that articulates what your skills are and provides samples of your work.
Hiring managers will Google you. The first thing they find should be what you actively want to present. It doesn’t have to be a big deal–a website on your own domain with existing clips and some sort of statement about your work history and what you’re interested in doing professionally is fine. (No, you don’t have to start a goddamned blog.) If you don’t have that, you’re somewhat at the mercy of what third party sites on the Internet say about you–which, best case, will be a scattershot cross-section of your work, and worst case, it’ll include pics of that trip to Ibiza that one time when you were a sophomore in college and oh god, let’s just not go there.
2) You should be on Facebook and Twitter, at the very least, and not because anyone expects you to be a prolific Tweeter or poster to Facebook.
You should be on those platforms because they are a crucial component of how news–and ultimately your writing–gets delivered to readers. If you staunchly refuse to participate in social media, for whatever reason, you’re telegraphing that you either don’t understand that, or don’t care. Both of those platforms can also be valuable journalistic tools when used properly, and not availing yourself of them handicaps you. This doesn’t mean you have to Tweet all the time or post to Facebook regularly, but you need to know what’s going on there.
3) If you don’t have clips that are representative of what you think you want to be writing, then assign yourself a handful of those stories and just go do them. Then post them to your personal site. This is especially useful if you want to switch beats.
If you write a good story and post it to your personal site, you’re giving me an idea of what you’re capable of, even if your clips don’t reflect that. And I’m not going to discount a really good story on the basis that you published it on YourName.com and not TheNewYorker.com. Incidentally, this sort of thing is not what people mean when they talk disdainfully about writing for free. You are writing for yourself in this case, and you are the only one who benefits.
Writing the kind of stories, or critical pieces, or essays that you want to be writing ultimately is a way of signaling that you’re interested and you can do it. This is particularly important if you’re already covering a beat and want to switch to another. I’ve had a lot of good journalists and writers apply for a totally different beat and get knocked out of the process because there’s no indication in their work history or anywhere else that they actually have an interest in the new beat and have done anything to cultivate it. If you want to go from writing about molecular gastronomy to national politics, I need to see somewhere that your interest in politics is serious. I can’t just take your word for it.
You don’t need an extensive body of work, but you do need two or three things you can highlight that establish your interests and ability.
4) If you’re looking to be a critic or opinion writer, you need public work that showcases your point of view, your style and your ability to make an argument.
It’s unlikely at the entry level that you’re going to find very many paid outlets that will publish you on spec solely for the promise of your potentially brilliant analysis. Positions as columnists and critics tend to be awarded to people who’ve already established some sort of expertise in their field. But one way around that–again!–is to just start doing it. It establishes that you’re capable of producing that kind of work, and that you’re good at it. (In that case, you may actually want to start a goddamned blog, but any representative body of work will do.)
5) If you’re an established writer or journalist, you can get away with not doing any of those things. That doesn’t mean that your less experienced colleagues can.
I am not writing this for you. However, I would ask that you not imply to journos-of-lesser-experience that all of these things are stupid and needless just because you think the Internet is destroying journalism and the work will speak for itself and so on. You are speaking from a point of privilege. The media environment was not as competitive when you started out (the number of j-school and MFA grads has exploded in the last 10 years and the number of jobs has not grown commensurately) and “Google” existed only as the misspelling of a very large number. If you dismiss these things, you are doing them a disservice.