Identify your why: How journalists can create and communicate their professional brands

This is the second in a series of three articles sharing lessons and best practices from the Lenfest Next Generation Fund for how journalists can maximize professional development opportunities, build their professional brands, and effectively network. Read the first article, on the RISE strategy for conference planning.

Your professional brand is how you want to be seen and known in the world. It’s a combination of experiences, skills, personality, and what differentiates you from others. Your brand is not just what you say, but how you act, react, and present yourself.

Having a professional brand builds trust: it gives you credibility as an authentic leader. It makes you memorable, helps grow your network, and puts you in the driver’s seat for your career.

These principles were outlined by Crawford Leadership Strategies CEO Joyel Crawford, In a recent presentation to the Lenfest Next Generation Fund, a program created by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism to enable Philadelphia-area journalists of color to attend professional development conferences. In her presentation, Crawford shared strategies for how to create and communicate an effective professional brand. 

NextGen awardees said that effective personal brands are essential for journalists — especially journalists of color. 

 “Traditional journalism says you should strive to be the messenger, not to be mistaken with the message,” said one NextGen awardee. “But for BIPOC, you are always the message and messenger. The trick is having control over that narrative.” 

“Building a brand reverses the flow of information: more frequent inbound tips as opposed to us chasing the story,” said another awardee. “Building your brand should come together with developing a brand mantra: the mantra is the heart and soul of your brand as you’re building it.” 

Identify your Why

Before you can articulate your brand to others, you must identify it to yourself, Crawford said. 

“Sometimes we get too wrapped up in the minutiae of doing our work that we forget about the work we need to do for ourselves,” she said. 

To do that, you should start to focus on your why: Why do you do what you do? 

The why is the passion that both drives you and attracts others to you and your work. It’s the why that is unique, Crawford said, emphasizing that you should lead with the why and not the what, which is just the description of your work 

To help you define your why and the language you’ll use to describe yourself, Crawford shared a simple exercise. First, start by answering these questions:

  • What gets you out of bed in the morning?
  • Why do you do what you do?
  • What makes your mouth water? Share that passion!

Once you’ve answered the three questions start pulling out words and phrases that resonate with you. Begin to put them together into a short sentence or phrase. You should continue to tweak the language until you have something that accurately represents your brand in a way that is simple, memorable, and inspiring.   

For example, Crawford shared her own branding mantra: “I’m an expert leadership consultant that inspires others to step into their power with confidence and clarity.” 

As you think about how you want to present yourself and your goals to others, Crawford said that it is worthwhile to  “take a pause for the cause and think about that why.”

How to shape your brand

Once you identify your why, it’s time to start thinking about how you’ll shape that why into a message you can share with others that can help you advance your career.

No matter if your goal is to score a new job, portray yourself as an expert in the field, or expand your skills, Crawford offered a three-step strategy for developing your personal brand strategy: 

Determine your emotional appeal: 

This seems like a weird place to start when discussing professional brands but it is a critical component to ensuring your visibility and ensuring you make meaningful connections with people. You should focus on who you are and not what you do. Below are some questions you can ask yourself to help actualize your identity:

  • How do you make people feel after you’ve worked together or connected through a networking opportunity? 
  • How do people benefit by working with you?
  • How do others describe you?

Describe your work intentionally

It matters how you describe both your current job function — as well as aspirational career goals. By clearly outlining your current responsibilities and your ambitions, you’ll be able to better explain them to potential employers and other contacts. This is important in an industry where job titles and meanings are constantly in flux. For example, if you’re attending a conference focused on product development, but you’re not currently working in a product role, you should be sure to mention that you’re there to learn how to break into the field. 

Here are a few questions to help you think through describing your work:

  • What field or industry am I in (or do I want to be in)?
  • What are the words I would use to describe my work?
  • Who is my target audience?

What sets you apart?

Once you hook people with your emotional appeal and explain the context of your work, you want people to understand what makes you unique so they can know if there are opportunities for collaboration or can keep you in mind for different roles that may emerge in the future. You have to explain what added value you provide — whether that’s through professional or lived experience, personality or any other characteristics. Here are some questions to help you suss out this part of your brand:

  • What service do I have to offer other people?
  • What do I do that makes me stand out from everyone else?

By identifying your emotional appeal, intentionally creating a narrative to describe your goals, and ensuring that you stand apart, you’ll be well on your way to communicating an effective professional brand.

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