Personal digital brands drive companies to diversify talent

The communications field has always had its share of bold-faced names, but the industry was more often found toiling behind the scenes.

The communications field has always had its share of bold-faced names, but the industry was more often found toiling behind the scenes. Social media, though, has been changing that convention.

Principles such as “transparency” and “authenticity” go beyond lip service to the core DNA of digital communications, which has meant PR staff not only pen Op-Eds for executives but also put their names on corporate blogs and their photos on branded Twitter accounts. Thus successful corporate accounts on Twitter, to examine one channel, bring personality to it, such as Christi Day @SouthwestAir, Scott Monty @Ford, and even customer service rep Frank Eliason @Comcastcares.

That convergence of personal and corporate branding has fueled the growth of – and interest in – communicators that are digital superstars.

Peter Himler, principal and founder of Flatiron Communications, who recently blogged on the issue notes that someone like Edelman's Steve Rubel or Ford's Monty, whose personal Twitter followers are more than double that of the Ford corporate account he leads, give their companies the ability to “deploy those spheres of influence… and you have the general perception that this is a very forward-thinking, tech-savvy company and that accrues to the brand's esteem.”

But there's an inherent danger in ceding too much of a brand or a company's image to an individual personality, because at some point that individual will leave, while the corporate entity will – hopefully – live on.

“It's a double-edged sword,” says Peter Kim, senior partner at Dachis Corp., and a former Forrester Research analyst. “From the corporate standpoint, you bring on somebody with visibility, with connections, it certainly brings a lot of attention to your company but you have to be certain that you know with whom that attention is held.”

“There's some feeling that when you leave a company, it's almost like your Rolodex in a way; these are your followers and your personal contacts, and you go and leave with them,” adds Himler.

To avoid that fate, companies are working to diversify their digital talent.

“There's danger whenever you allow only one person at the company to do anything – there's an element of risk there,” says Monty, who heads Ford's social media efforts. “Steve Jobs is a primary example of how that's playing out right now. The Apple brand is tied up in Steve Jobs.”

Monty notes that Ford has about five Facebook pages and a number of brand and communications managers engaging on Twitter, including through the Fiesta and Mustang brands. It has also made its CEO active on Twitter. Monty says Ford plans to roll out an internal program later this year that will not only train employees on social media tools, but also ensure they all understand the strategy and goals. It will begin with the communications department.

“The goal is to democratize it across a number of folks to really open up Ford so we have legions of employees doing this, not just a single person,” he says.

Similarly at Comcast, Jennifer Khoury, VP of corporate communications, agrees that Eliason, with nearly 25,000 followers at the Comcastcares account, is a very public face for the company. However, he is joined by 10 others on that customer service team, including Comcastgeorge and Comcastmelissa. Though the corporate communications team is also active on Twitter, they are more closely focused on the myriad issues they tackle and other media, including checking more than 10,000 blogs daily, Khoury notes.

“It's having the right people on the right forums,” she says.

When asked what would happen if Eliason were to leave the company, Khoury responded, “We have a team that we've built that is very strong. It takes an entire team…and we'll keep evolving that team to be where our customers are.”

On the agency side, a number of firms continue to make key hires for digital departments despite a lackluster employment market in order to meet client demand and to establish their own reputation in social media. For example, Porter Novelli recently hired Stephanie Agresta, also known as Internet Geek Girl, as global director of digital strategy and social media.

“I think it needs to be an all-star system,” says Marian Salzman, CMO at PN. “It can't be a single star system. It's important to have people who are personal brands but then they ladder up to be part of an all-star team. We don't just have Steph Agresta; she's our latest hire but we also have Brad McCormick…we have Matt Morrison in London. Is that perfect? No.”

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