Monday, 11 November 2019

A need for a new profession: the personal brand manager

This post was written in the middle of September and sat unused on my hard drive for two months. But then I saw a tweet from futurist Ross Dawson at around 10.45am (Sydney time) yesterday that said, “Interesting piece in @TheAtlantic on the rise of ‘Personal CRM’ services to help you manage your personal relationships and how some people are using tech to keep in touch with those important to them - does it help or hinder relationships?” The Tweet came with a link to a story on the company’s website but I don’t have a subscription so I didn’t click on it.

Celebrities offer comfort. We gravitate to the names of actors, artists, musicians, writers, movie directors, poets (and criminals). We nestle in the warmth of the stories that surround them. Their personalities bring us reassuring certainties that are so different from the anxiety that the rest of our lives delivers in such abundance.

We turn sportsmen and -women and even our politicians into celebrities too. And don’t forget royalty! They allow us to spin reliable stories and share them with like-minded people, people who add to the feeling of security we crave as we navigate our ways through the thickets of life. Celebrities offer people a desirable prospect because they are not us. They are not, in our view, cramped by insecurities and by the difficulties of deciding, all the time, what to do with their time, their money, their energies.

We put them on a pedestal but crucify them when they disappoint us. If this happens, our response is out of proportion to the offense, we insult them and verbally abuse them and ostracise them until they become outcasts from the community.

Fame is thus a poisoned chalice. The bigger you are the harder you can fall. And by applying to celebrities (even some journalists and some scientists) a higher degree of scrutiny than we apply to ordinary people we make such people more careful about controlling what messages about themselves that are made public. They become paranoid about leaks and whistleblowers who might endanger their precious social cachet. Hence the severity of punishments for frivolously endangering it, which the state enforces through defamation laws. And hence the state’s penalties for people who reveal information that might embarrass any of its organs.

With politicians, a kind of balance is struck through the existence of freedom of information laws but in practice these are not always entirely successful for the person who is trying to uncover evidence of wrongdoing or of government malpractice. Objections to the stated request may be put forward on the grounds of secrecy or on the grounds that revealing the requested information could put innocent people at risk. Furthermore, the cost can be prohibitive, and if the release is judged to require too much time to carry out it can be refused on the grounds that doing so is not feasible.

Politicians and celebrities and sporting clubs employ public relations professionals – many of whom have been either trained as journalists or who have worked as journalists – to make it easier to control the messages that get out into the public sphere. Partly in response to this perception of obfuscation, whistleblowers, in turn, are celebrated and are given recognition by the community as protectors of freedoms. The debates that rage around such people are, however, often characterised by rancour as people express contrasting views.

Trust is easily lost and most large organisations have a problem maintaining it. People in the broader community respond by raising up their own, chosen celebrities, people whose use of social media has propelled them into popularity. People are loyal and unthinkingly support their heroes, and the cachet of being an “outsider” clings to such people even if they are successfully appropriated by the entertainment industry.

News about celebrities is often derided as meaningless but I think that this view is misguided. As I wrote in a post published on 25 May 2015, all news stories are proxies for larger debates. So a story about a celebrity who does something wrong can contain important messages, for example, about such things as trust (if the celebrity lied) or about sexual assault (if the celebrity raped a woman). We use such stories as important tokens that express things about ourselves and we share them with our peers as we go about our daily business and as we talk about what we did on the weekend or the evening before (watched a movie, read a news story).

Privileging a celebrity as an actor in stories that are meaningful for us is perfectly natural. Humans are social animals and language is innate so the creation of stories that help us to make the communities we need to survive is a species behaviour. In our stories we have protagonists who represent certain values and who embody certain things about ourselves and about our societies. We invest them with parts of us but we fail to do the same for ourselves. But unless we are a psychopath we are not the heroes of our own stories. Most people are beset by misgivings and doubts and search out ways to allay such feelings, even going so far as to create gods that they worship as all-powerful and benign and able to settle the confusion amid which they live their lives.

All of this is uncontroversial and should be common knowledge. But we need now to be able to make ourselves the heroes of our own stories, to give to ourselves the same quantity of belief that we give to celebrities and to gods. As we move on in time, and as we become more used to the capacity each one of us now has to publish our own stories, we need to be more able to fashion positive stories about ourselves that we can share, instead of just building up one celebrity or tearing another one down. We can choose to leave behind the comforting certainties offered by celebrity and embrace a more meaningful existence as, ourselves, people worth celebrating on the basis of our own, individual qualities.

In a sense this is already happening. It is happening along lines marked out by the trajectories drawn by identity politics. There are more and more memoirs being published written by people who are only remarkable on the basis of the stories that they are able to tell. These revelations of suffering and of challenges overcome are bought by ordinary people who want something authentic to use to divert themselves from the fear and loathing that they experience in their own lives. True crime, also, is very popular. And so we have started out on our journey toward fulfillment, to a place where we can leave behind the sterile and gratuitous search for meaning in the lives of others, so that we can find it in our own.

Perhaps now there is a place for professionals whose job it is to create and fashion a personal brand for individuals who are not particularly remarkable but who want to engage in a more meaningful way with others in the community on social media. A personal brand manager of this kind could talk with you over a period of a couple of days in order to establish the kinds of things that you want to represent online, and help to orient you within the available narratives so that you can choose one suitable for you, one that both authentically reflects who you are and that can help you to achieve your personal goals. They could then give you advise about how to promote suitable narratives on the various platforms that you use, such as Facebook and Twitter. And they could also provide guidance about what kinds of conversations to avoid.

This kind of professional could work for anyone and it could all be done over Skype or FaceTime. I had a service of this nature a year or so ago when I wanted to improve my LinkedIn profile. The woman I spoke with lives in California and she helped me to construct a useful personal profile on the site that would project my strengths in a way that is easy to read and comprehensive but that avoids some common problems such as verbosity and an excess of detail. The blueprint for a personal brand manager is already with us and the need for this class of person is real.

No comments: