In her second article for this month’s issue, Jasmine Martirossian, Ph.D., VP Marketing at TÜV SÜD Americas, shares her advice on balancing personal brand and representing your employer and a great example of how to lead when balancing freedom of speech and connected employees.

Authenticity and Alignment Are Requisite Factors

Social media has remade marketing in many ways.  The concept of the brand has become multi-layered and multi-faceted.  In speaking of the “brand” we no longer think of just the organization, but also of a person.  Ultimately, brand experiences, meaning whatever experiences people have to interact with your organization, or with you as a person.  It’s the following associations that these experiences evoke that define the brand.

And, yes, “personal brand” is a legitimate phrase behind a legitimate concept.  In fact, it’s so powerful that it has turned employees into full-fledged ambassadors for their organizations, helping further blend the lines in social media between what is organizational and what is personal.  

These days, successful social media strategies depend on employees amplifying the voice of their organizational brand.  A personal brand is also a factor in hiring decisions.  When it comes to executives, many roles are filled precisely with the strength of the personal brand as a market influencer.  

Employers and personal brand

Historically, organizational brands have conferred legitimacy and extended their aura of influence on individuals.  If someone worked at Accenture, Deloitte, or IBM, the brand of these companies would extend to their greater employability.  Nowadays, with social media enabling people to get broader prominence faster, the reverse is also becoming a phenomenon.

As with everything else, COVID-19 has been shining a light on the blurring lines that distinguish the individual posts of employees from their organizational posts in social media.  

Balancing the freedom of speech

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and religion.  It is the cornerstone of American democracy.  I personally hold it sacred, and it has gone a long way in building the US into the free, powerful and influential country that it is today.  Yet the First Amendment protections do not extend to all speech.  For instance, hate speech is not protected at all, and inciting hate is an offense subject to prosecution.  And then there are other limitations as well.

For instance, in the early 2010s, one of my colleagues alerted me to the fact that a temp we had hired kept a steady stream of humorous tweets about the daily events in the office.  While some of his tweets were rather funny, they were totally inappropriate.  We had to have a conversation, and again the Freedom of Speech came up, and we had to explain that sharing confidential information for the fun of it (especially where the disclosure was not uncovering any illicit actions that could be protected as whistleblowing) was not protected by the First Amendment.

Shared values

As with anything in life, practicing common sense goes a long way in managing one’s social presence.  Given how closely personal and organizational brands are aligned today, before accepting a role at any given company, one must first ask if their values and nature of the work they will be doing are aligned with those of the company they are thinking of joining.  

Life is too short to spend much of one’s working hours at a company whose work and values are misaligned with one’s own.  In fact, that would be a source of major stress caused by cognitive dissonance, a term coined by famed social psychologist Leon Festinger to describe situations where a person’s beliefs are not aligned with their actions.  Again, cognitive dissonance is a very stressful state of being.

Another way to look at this is through the prism of authenticity.  In her book “Rebel Talent:  Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life,” Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino writes that faking authenticity is not harmless and takes a toll on our well-being:

“our self-esteem, job performance, and relationships all take a hit. Small challenges seem bigger. … The more inauthentic we feel, the higher our stress, the lower our sense of well-being, and the more prone we are to burnout.”

Gino, Francesca, “Rebel Talent:  Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life,” Dey St, an Imprint of William Morrow, New York, NY, 2018, p. 148.

So seeking alignment at the outset between your values and that of the organization you are joining is not a trivial matter.

Executives and leaders

And when it comes to executives, in today’s social media environment, they are definitely uber-ambassadors for their respective organizations.  No matter how many disclaimers they issue about their posts reflecting strictly their personal opinions, their posts will be viewed as reflective of their organization.  Elon Musk is a shining example of this.  He has even been sanctioned for his tweets by SEC and contempt of court threats have been issued for his subsequent tweets.

With privilege comes responsibility. We are all privileged to have access to modern technology, to have Freedom of Speech to express our views, to have diverse perspectives to bring to the table.  Yet it’s also important to use that privilege responsibly.  Sometimes, it’s also not what we are saying, but how we are saying it.  

In life, very few things are starkly black and white.  Rather, it’s shades of gray that represent reality.  Being guided by sensitivity to subtleties, respecting the diversity of perspectives, the gravitas of responsibility, and, ultimately, common sense, will go a long way in creating a personal brand that can both stand on its own and support your organization, provided there is alignment there in the first place.


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