Looking to get a real leg up against your classmates? It’ll require something you may have overlooked—branding. When certified public relations and journalism expert Professor Scott Talan of American University steps into a room, you’ll almost automatically get into a conversation with him on personal branding. Known on the American University campus as one of the more interesting professors, this former mayor of Lafayette, California, has tons of tips for success to share.
College Magazine: What do you define branding as?
Scott Talan: Branding is the process where you have an emotional relationship with some product, service, country or person. We all do it, because we don’t have time to fully research something or describe people. Branding is a shortcut that indicates trust, quality, performance and attributes that you find of value.
CM: How have you seen personal branding change in the last decade?
ST: It’s getting the point where instead of you finding the job, the job finds you. You’ve branded yourself so well and consistently that recruiters and employers are able to locate and reach you.
I’m seeing more and more students to some degree being aware of it. A lot of employers are using LinkedIn and Facebook. Employers use Facebook because employers hire people, not resumes, so they’re trying to find a little bit about you. There is a risk for students who make their profile private or use a nickname because if they’re not findable, it can raise a red flag of “What do they have to hide?” It’s not that you have to reveal your deepest secrets, but what books, music and movies do you like? What do you post about? There’s more risk to not being brandable online than having too much.
CM: Why do you believe personal branding is important for college students?
ST: I have this motto that relying on applying for jobs is risky if that’s all you’re doing. It looks like something’s happening, but you don’t know how many others applied and if your resume went into a black hole.
Treat applying like breakfast, it’s an important meal of the day, but you also need lunch and dinner. Lunch might be offline networking like career fairs or always having a business card. Dinner might be the online stuff: Are you active on Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram? Are you publishing content?
The other motto I say is, “In Google we trust.” We all look online to confirm things, and if it’s not there, then it’s a caution. On Google, if you’re not on first page, you need to be because 90 percent of people don’t go past page one. There’s ways to publish yourself on blogs, other blogs and social platforms that pushes you up so you’re findable on Google.
CM: How can students who haven’t actively branded themselves before get started?
ST: Find a PowerPoint or a slide share from a Google search about personal branding, choose one that seems really good and study it to understand it. If you’re really fearful or interested in the topic, there’s a book called Me 2.0 by Dan Schawbel or read articles from Harvard Business Review to Fast Company.
It’s basically being consistent across platforms (offline and online) in what you put forth. I know some former students who are good about using the same photo across different social media platforms. A brand is about consistency.
You also have to analyze yourself. Think about what you’re good at, ask others “What’s the five words to describe me to someone else?”. You would be surprised at what people think about you. You’re getting brand feedback. You’re looking at potential customers, in a sense, and understand what they perceive about you.
CM: How is branding different on platforms other than social media, and why should you branch out onto other platforms?
ST: You should have a mix of things you’re comfortable with. You don’t want it to be too much work, but you want it to be consistent. For example, I’m really active on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. I post on articles that deal with politics, some sports, design and interesting people. I’m doing it for me because I’m interested in those things, and I think others might be interested too.
There are all sorts of free sites that are easy to upload content, like a school paper, a group project, pictures you’ve taken, etc. It gives insight into you and what you do. For example, a student could be really into the Middle East. I ask what they’ve written, and they tell me papers for class. I would tell them that only two people have seen those papers, the student and the teacher. That’s not a lot. Why not put that paper or an excerpt from that paper online to get some feedback?
You can’t keep all your things secret in the world, especially if you want to be hired. Everything wants feedback from others. No person is an island, and if you’re that private or fearful of the world, then you might have to hire yourself for a job.
CM: How is personal branding different depending on the field you’re in?
ST: The concepts are the same in terms of understanding who you are and your attributes. The results are going to be different. For someone in graphic design, they have a lot of room to be creative, colorful and inventive. For someone in economics, they can’t be as creative or colorful to that degree. You have to know who you’re trying to reach and what will be acceptable to them.
CM: What is the easiest way to brand yourself in a negative light?
ST: By not branding yourself, by putting extreme opinions on politics and religion out there, as if they matter. Opinions are so easy, but they can be damaging to yourself depending on how extreme. Employers really worry the most about typos, grammatical errors and extreme political or religious comments.
Further down is party pics and that type of thing. Most photos are taken at social things where people are usually drinking. It could look like all you do is go out every night of the week, even if you’re not drinking. It might only be five percent of your time, but it’s showing up on social feeds as 50 percent of activity because people don’t take pictures in a library.
CM: What would you say to people who believe that personal branding reduces humans to products to sell?
ST: I don’t believe it reduces; I believe it expands your opportunities in a career and in life. In an interview you’re selling yourself as the best person for the job. More concerning is asking, “Are you selling out on principles?” Are you putting something up there that is not accurate or not you? Are you selling skills that you don’t really have?
CM: How can students brand themselves in an authentic way?
ST: Know what you’re good at, know what you need to improve and match that to the things you want to do in life. Then publish or perish.
The areas that are troubling is that it’s not taught in schools, especially in lower levels. There have been cases of students not getting into college because of stuff posted online. The impacts are already being felt.
If people think it is just about superficiality, they’re dead wrong. They should be comforted that the brand is in the performing of what they’re hired to do. You actually have to perform once you get hired. There is a little bit of the presentation, but there is also the performance.
CM: Do you have anything else you want to add?
ST: If this is a new notion, then get to know more. You put in personal branding, and you’ll find millions of results. Read some articles, see some slide shares. Realize other people are doing it, and at some point, life is still competitive. Jobs are competitive. You will hopefully want to be competitive to some degree.