Ripping The Heart Out Of Personal Branding
I didn’t know Trey Pennington, and I almost didn’t write an article concerning his death because of that. Two other bloggers I respect who did know him have already done so, and many others besides. But then on Monday, after reading Davina Brewer’s post, I stopped in the middle of commenting.
I thought, I have no comment. I didn’t know Trey any more than Davina did, and even Davina is helpless as to what could possibly be said here. What message is being sent? What lesson can be learned?
Let’s hold that thought and go visit Coca-Cola for a moment. Do you know the name of Coke’s CEO? Which one? You’re asking. Don’t get wishy-washy, throw a name out there. I trust you, I wouldn’t know if you were lying, and I wouldn’t care enough to check. Now let’s head over to Cupertino. Nobody hears of Apple without hearing of Steve Jobs. He was adopted, you know. And he likes India. So what he’s no longer CEO, do you see where I’m going with this?
It takes no effort to maintain a public persona, or–more accurately–to use one. Because if a guy came up and gave me his full name and address, favorite color, the names of his dog and fish, and then said, “I’m CEO of Coke Australia,” all preceding data would be vaporized, and I’d tell you from the foggy memories remaining that the CEO of Coke was a nice guy. But his very facial features would by then have transmogrified into the Coke logo and all that stands behind the brand itself for me. Steve Jobs? I’ve got a bucket of factoids to splash you with about him, but his face may as well be a brand logo, too.
What takes effort is to reach out–as I read Trey did at some point–beyond that persona, and pull people in to meet the person behind it. We’re uncomfortable doing that. I’d say Trey had very good reasons for being uncomfortable doing that. Yet, he did. But how far does that go? The fact is, if any of us really knew Trey, we wouldn’t wonder why he committed suicide. We’d be chewing on regret and going, “Yeah, I coulda told you that’s where he was headed.” Right? But he didn’t want that.
Right up until the moment he took his last breath, he was fine with keeping the believers in his personal brand confident in him. That was the message he wanted to send–at that time, at least. Heartbreak followed, because a couple of hours later he’d left behind thousands of people who believed in it so well, they felt they were personal friends of his. He gave that much of himself to them.
Let’s be real about this: As professionals, we’re taking advantage of personal branding today–both online and offline, but especially online–in ways we’d never be able to outside the business world, because we need it. We need to see the earnest, smiling faces and quirky avatars; hear the upbeat, confident voices; get high on the endorphins we get from compliments. Snark makes us smile, but haters make us unsubscribe. What we can learn from Trey, though, is that having this need fulfilled hundreds of thousands of times a day can’t save any person behind any persona.
As much as we say we crave the “human face” of a company and hate the “impersonality” of bots, the simple fact is that holding people–all people–at a certain distance while conducting business is what keeps us sane and smart while making business decisions. And after all the speculation, the most unarguable fact about Trey to a stranger like myself? He was a smart businessman.
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Of course you already know where I stand on this. I just wanted to congratulate you on a thoughtful post. It's time to take off the Superman cape and let people know we're human.
Having said that ... let me defend Trey, who I knew in real life. He was a very troubled man and reached out broadly for help -- maybe not enough, maybe not the right kind, but he had made many, many personal connections with people in the last few weeks and months. He also had family members who were very involved in his life.
However, being transparent about the depth of his problems would have been a bad business decision. Remember, he had big problems, but he still had to feed a bunch of kids still iving at home. Revealing his true problems would have made things even worse (if that was possible). It's easy to dismiss "personas" but they also can play a useful role, especially when he was depending on a happy, confident facade to bring him speaking gigs.
There are a lot of angles to explore here, and I don;t have time to explore them, but let's just say that yes, he was operating behind a facade, but he was also doing the best he could to provide for his family under excruciating circumstances. Let's extend some grace for that fact.
Thanks again for the excellent post.
markwschaefer Thanks for putting in more kind words for Trey, Mark. I read from your post that he did reach out to you and to one of your commenters. I respect that and am glad he saw fit to trust you with his personal side. I did my best to refrain from casting any sort of shadow on his character from either the business or personal side because I don't have any sort of firsthand knowledge about either, and I have an innate aversion to speculation about people. My point is, as I said, that we do need our public personas to function successfully in the business world. As a side comment, I just wanted to acknowledge that those personas aren't all we need. But they're essential.
Trey was running a business that thrived mainly on his name. Posting "Help me!" from his brand's account would do nothing to improve either his business or his personal life, and he knew it. So for the general public, speculation about his situation or about what we could have done differently to prevent a tragedy the details of which we're not even privy to is (sometimes) well-meant, but generally rather presumptuous. I think it's wiser and more respectful to allow his story to offer a lesson to us rather than applying our own lessons to it.
Shakirah, this is a brilliant piece. I agree with Jenn; I love it. I have been having this discussion with Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing lately re: personas and personal brands. I didn't have it in me today to write about it in a post and instead went with a more suitable business topic. I'm with you; I want to keep those big personas at an arms length. I don't trust what they're selling as their brand and who they are; I just want to know the business side of things at this point. I think we blur the real world from the online world and the image that we'd like to project and that we want people to know about us. I'd say there are only a handful of people online (maybe more) who are exactly how they portray themselves online. I know a few, thankfully. :)
EricaAllison I think 3HatsComm discussed this from a different perspective in a recent post http://www.3hatscommunications.com/blog/2011/09/working-with-friends/, and I think you really did hit the point hard here: "I don't trust what they're selling as their brand and who they are; I just want to know the business side of things at this point." Very few of us can get to Oprah's level, where people just hear the name and press GO. There's maybe one in every industry, if that. Most of us want some street cred, but it's just--and I think I'm just finally learning this--you don't get it until you've got everything else going for you first. Steve Jobs was a very determined high school dropout, but it was his products and business philosophy that spread his name around, not a firm handshake and way with words.
Still don't know what to say any more than the good comments from @jennwhinnem and @soulati; I mentioned it on one of Mark W. Schaefer's post that it's so hard to show struggles, downs, all that possibly moreso when you're in the success business. Don't know from others, but I need that safety zone, that space before things get too close.
I still have my issues with the concept of 'personal brand' - Oprah branded her name, marketed her celebrity but IMO we only knew of her 'personally' what she wanted us too. I believe in professional reputation, which yes is often carefully crafted. I would suspect there are days Steve Jobs wouldn't want to wear a black shirt w/ jeans maybe change it uo but then .. that would be the story vs. what he wants us to hear. FWIW.
3HatsCommjennwhinnem Yep, the expressions on our faces, the places we frequent, the people we get photographed shaking hands with--that's the brand, and if we are the brand, we absolutely must control it. I'd say Trey did a brilliant job at it. If and when he sought help, it wasn't from us--and for good reason. So we can't ask why we didn't realize what was going on.
Shakirah, I think this is the best post I've read about Trey yet (with all respect to my colleagues who wrote about Trey).
You're right. He did want us to believe his brand, and we did.
A former mentor once told me its dangerous to believe in your public persona, and he cautioned me never to do it. He said it was important that I have one but never to think it was real - I'd met the people who believed in their public personas and mostly they were jerks. I never thought that perhaps one of the side effects of this was that I could not ask for help when I needed it.
jennwhinnem Your mentor was very wise--and really must have cared--to say something so personal to you, Jenn. That's where the main danger lies: when we begin lying to ourselves, about ourselves. Since I don't know what Trey's inner circumstances were and I've heard chemicals were involved, I won't say that was the case with him, but to it's clear he believed he'd be okay if we were okay with him being okay--if that makes sense.
What? I'm scoring first here? I'm amazed no one else has jumped in; excellent and thought-provoking post. I erased what i just wrote b/c I don't want to even suggest he had a grand scheme to brand himself until he couldn't. WTH. I'm so confused by what I know, and yet, this wasn't the first time he attempted taking his life. Shouldn't there have been a watch team around him to ensure he didn't try again?
I digress back into the befuddlement; absolutely more questions than answers. I sat beside him on the dais in awe of his stories and his brand and his influence and his leadership and love for his kids. I am so lost, and yet I knew him not as a friend but as a leader in social media.
I already said all this, but the topic continues to drive me to drink. I think I'll eat a piece of fudge instead.
Soulati | B2B Social Media Marketing I didn't really promote this much yesterday because I was nervous about it. I never talk about people and I read your post and Mark's with respect and sympathy but I had no comment. When I read Davina's though, I was moved because she didn't know him, but she felt sensitive to the loss. And suddenly I had something to say.
It doesn't take so much effort to be the person people expect us to be _from what we ourselves have told them_--and it takes even less for them to believe in that person and disregard what doesn't jibe with it.