Thanks to social media, it has never been easier for individuals and companies to connect with a large audience directly, shaping and communicating their message in their own words rather than having it interpreted through traditional gatekeepers of media.
However, as many have discovered, just because it’s easy to connect with an audience doesn’t mean one should do it lightly – messages must still be thoughtfully crafted and delivered.
Such is the warning from Fleur Brown, founder of PR agency Launch Group and cofounder of TedX Sydney.
Having always loved writing, journalism was Fleur Brown’s first love; ultimately, though, she felt she could have more of an impact in PR.
“The common thread between the two was wanting to help give voice to great people, ideas and causes, but where journalism tends to be adhoc stories, PR was a better way to build a solid platform beneath people and businesses,” she explained.
Brown spent a number of years working in the corporate and government spheres, with time at Channel 7 and the City of Sydney, before branching out to start her own business, PR agency Launch Group.
One of the best parts of running her own business, Brown said, is the freedom – and then there’s the creativity.
“One of the greatest advantages to an agency is having a community of highly creative people to bounce ideas off. This helps increase everyone’s confidence and courage enormously,whereas in-house comms and marketing people can feel quite isolated and undervalued at times,” she explained.
However, Brown said she’s glad for the experience working within large corporate and government environments.
“It helped me understand how business, government and media work from the inside out. It also gave me an appreciation of the often slow and difficult decision making within those environments, with many layers of permission required, so I can empathise with clients,” Brown said.
While she can empathise, Brown doesn’t believe she could go back to corporate life; in fact, she said, she considers herself “unemployable” for corporates.
“The relative freedom of being in business despite its many challenges is something I would find almost impossible to give up. I identify strongly with the entrepreneurs and startup players we work with,” she said.
“While we aren’t going for the scale of a startup, we are certainly able to respond to the market in an agile and free spirited way, something that is a huge struggle in enterprise.”
Like others, the PR sector has had to make changes to adapt to the market, however Brown said the Australian space has had a “luxuriously slow shift, much slower than I anticipated when social media and search first got on clients’ radar”.
More than these and other technological advances, Brown believes the real shift has come in the public’s attitudes towards – and declining trust in – the news, spurred on by the weakening of traditional journalism.
“Professional journalism is so important to democracy, so I find this outcome quite tragic. It is something I firmly believe will eventually be corrected, I just wish there were more investors willing to step forward to help in this area even from a social enterprise perspective,” Brown said.
With traditional media going through changes and online platforms making it easier than ever for anyone to make their voice heard, Brown said there has been a shift towards the business and the individual as a media channel or media brand in their own right.
“But companies and individuals are still finding their way when it comes to identifying how to create compelling, high impact content,” Brown explained.
“We are in this kind of middle place, in between traditional journalism and greater individual empowerment in media. I wouldn’t call it a happy place yet as nobody has it quite figured out; it can be a very confusing world for business to navigate.”
The best examples of this kind of content so far are powered by a founder’s personal brand. What is that? Brown points to a quote from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who defined it as “what people say about you when you’re not in the room”.
In more practical terms, she added, it’s essentially your personal elevator pitch. Among other things, it takes into account how you position yourself to others through your various channels, both passively and proactively; whether what you do is clear, memorable, and compelling; and whether you make it easy for other people to recommend you, or if you’re undermining your credibility and your opportunities by the way you present yourself, either online or in person.
“In a time poor business environment, you don’t really get second chances,” Brown said.
While having the right spokesperson can be critical to achieving publicity or managing messages in media, the importance of building a strong personal brand go beyond just media exposure. According to Brown, the reasons vary depending on the stage a startup is at, and its target audiences.
“For example, in early stage, having a credible online footprint is critical to investor credibility. Ongoing, it can be important to partnerships and major customer acquisition,” she explained.
A strong personal brand is also crucial on social media, where people most often engage with individuals rather than companies.
“Personal brand can be vital when it comes to establishing new conversations, thought leadership or repositioning. The right kind of thought leadership from a founder can have an enormous impact on educating target customers about the need for their product or service and building market desire,” Brown said.
A well-managed personal brand can also come into play when it comes time for a founder to exit their business.
“This is important for the sustainability of the business brand with key customers and investors, as well as the professional endeavours of that particular founder, supporting their next venture. It’s also important for succession planning that the key team left within the business have a well developed voice and personal brand,” Brown said.
“The people behind a brand will come under increasing scrutiny from the next generation of consumers. Gone are the days of the faceless company; you only need to look at Uber as a recent case in point around what can go wrong when a startup underestimates the impact of a founder’s personal reputation.”
The Uber example highlights the difference between the startup and the corporate approaches to building a personal brand. While a corporate professional is generally quite cautious and hesitant about pushing their own voice out there, Brown said, startup entrepreneurs tend to have an ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’ attitude and can be blind to communication risks, which can see them come across as cocky, reckless, or offensive, or as not having through things through sufficiently.
“‘Thinking out loud’ doesn’t work as well in media or on the speaking circuit as it may within the startup bubble,” Brown said.
Brown will be helping founders avoid the pitfalls and learn how to build a strong personal brand in a hands-on intensive Zambesi workshop, How to build a powerful personal brand, running October 27.
Through the workshop, Brown wants participants to understand the simple things they can start doing to deliver “huge impact” immediately, such as writing a strong bio or LinkedIn summary, changing their personal photo, or writing a couple of strong blog posts.
“I want people to understand that paying attention to personal brand is now everyone’s business – not just the founder, CEO or key company executives. Anyone from our company who meets with outside stakeholders is going to be looked up on LinkedIn or on Google ahead of the meeting and you need the confidence that they will project the right kind of message, to help increase sales.”