Is brand the same as voice?

Posted on November 18, 2010 by Janet Coats

In thinking about the issues of voice raised by Mark Ambinder’s post declaring “I am a blogger no longer,’’ I found myself weighing the idea of voice and personal brand.

There’s no doubt that, as old media institutions shift, morph and sometimes disappear altogether, journalists need to think about what distinguishes their work. No longer is it enough to rely on the brand of the news organization you work for – an organization that likely is finding its own market position in doubt. Journalists have to be more entrepreneurial, and that fact has launched a thousand conversations about the need to develop a personal brand.

But is brand really the same as voice? Ambinder’s post, and the often very nuanced reaction to it, has got me thinking about that question.

Anyone who has spent any time studying advertising and marketing knows that the best, strongest brands aren’t developed from surface attributes alone. A strong brand, one that resonates and has staying power, speaks to both the brand experience – the actual performance of the product in question and the tangible benefits customers derive from it– and the brand image – the emotional or psychological connection you get from associating with that product.

I’m beginning to think that we’ve spent far too much time contemplating our navel when it comes the brand image of journalists and journalism and way too little time thinking about the brand experience.

We’ve thought – and fought – a lot about voice and about perspective and who is a blogger and who is a journalist. And we’ve been debating for at least the last 15 years about whether journalists should try to be a closed book or whether they should share every opinion they’ve formed, thought they’ve had or position they’ve taken in a late-night barroom conversation in the interest of transparency.

Maybe – just maybe – we should be thinking a lot more about the brand experience we’re giving people.

I’m not saying that the issues of developing a strong voice aren’t important. I’m not arguing against transparency, or the need for more of it from journalists.

But I’m beginning to think that this is a conversation we are largely having with ourselves – across our various journalism tribes – and that it really doesn’t mean much to people who are trying to sort out useful, factual and relevant information from the end of a very large news firehose.

I find it interesting that many of the debates about voice and transparency focus on national and Washington coverage. The view of the world that believes that coverage equals journalism – or that it sets the bar for quality or ethical behavior or reflects how community-level journalists govern themselves – is quite simply, uninformed.

As someone who has spent a career in community journalism, I can say that it is a lot easier to practice transparency when your readers see you in the grocery store or at the PTA meeting. And I think voice is both easier to develop and more genuine when you are covering a community that you have a personal stake in – because you live there and your children are growing up there.

I was a participant in a webinar last week featuring Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group and author of “Open Leadership and the recently published “Groundswell.’’ Li focuses on helping clients develop practical strategies for using emerging technology.

The audience for this webinar, a group of journalists, had been asking Li about the proper role of journalists in social media. Their questions came down, essentially, to some of the same old worries about voice and transparency.

Li talked about that, and she very patiently explained the fact that transparency is expected in a social media world. But I got the sense that she thought perhaps we were obsessing about the wrong things. Ultimately, her advice for journalists about voice and place in social media was stark in its simplicity.

“The most important thing is that you show up with data and facts,’’ Li said. Not everyone brings those two elements with them to the conversation, she reminded us.

Data and facts. How’s that for the basis for a brand that you want to live up to and live with every day?

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