Political campaigns used to be short, frenzied run-ups to an election — after which the winning candidate would turn to the stately task of governing. But over the past few decades, politics and policy began to mingle. Political advisors took White House roles, and polling began to drive decision-making — “The Permanent Campaign,” as journalist (and later Clinton staffer) Sidney Blumenthal presciently dubbed it in his 1980 book.
The advent of 24-hour cable news (and later, the Internet) opened a gaping maw, ravenous for content. Politicians knew they’d be dissected constantly, not just during campaign season, with querulous Crossfire hosts debating who has “The Big Mo” and who’s on the downswing. Most people — even former political operatives, like me — can agree this is bad for democracy. But candidates have accepted it as the new normal and, with savvy teams PR experts on call, they’re making do.
The real problem, though, isn’t the impact on politicians.
It’s the fact that everyone else — including regular professionals — is also now expected to perform round-the-clock personal brand maintenance, and most people don’t even realize it.
Sure, they probably have a Facebook account, and they may even be on Twitter. But they don’t recognize that these are no longer personal communication tools, or a means of strengthening weak ties across their networks. Instead, they are the criteria by which you will be evaluated in the future. Just as Michael Deaver ensured that Ronald Reagan always stood in front of a perfect, picturesque backdrop — and set the standard for all subsequent leaders — you’re now responsible for curating your image.
And unfortunately, it’s not enough just to worry about it at “election time” — i.e., when you’re seeking a promotion or looking for a new job. The permanent campaign truly is ongoing, and all successful candidates (of the job or political variety) need to recognize a few new truths:
Your reputation precedes you. Any employer with a modicum of common sense is going to vet you on the Internet before even bothering to talk to you. In a world where too many job seekers fabricate parts of their resumes, the Internet can provide valuable third-party verification that you are who you say you are. It’s also your opportunity to set yourself apart. If your only online presence is eBay sales or race times from your running club, you’re going to look like an amateur.
If you’re invisible, you’re probably a fraud. Resumes and even clever cover letters will become increasingly meaningless when employers are looking not for words, but for demonstrated knowledge and results. If you’ve got a strong online personal brand, you’re in. And if you don’t? One firm I consulted for almost didn’t hire a a qualified senior executive because — lacking almost any online presence — they strongly suspected he had fabricated his background. He hadn’t, but the elaborate process of verifying his story nearly cost him the job.
You progress or you stagnate. It’s a fact: the rest of the world isn’t paying nearly as much attention to you as you’d like. You’ve spent the past few years developing new skills and capabilities — yet your employer and colleagues are oblivious. The only way you can demonstrate your new expertise to a broad audience — one that might want to hire you, in fact — is to brand yourself as a public expert, just like a candidate for office would. Online, create a stream of valuable content by tweeting, blogging, and being quoted by media outlets. Offline, cultivate your reputation through involvement in professional associations, public speaking, and networking.
Many people don’t want to deal with the hassle of a “permanent career campaign.” They think it’s too much work to contemplate their personal brand, maintain their social media footprint, or cultivate relationships when they’re not on the make for a new job. Those are the people who will lose. Whether or not you want to play the game, it’s happening around you. Here are three ways — cribbed from the candidates who know best — you can win your personal campaign:
1. Monitor. Keeping track of media mentions formerly meant a fleet of bleary-eyed interns coming in at 6 a.m. and clipping, gluing, and photocopying a packet of articles. Thankfully, Google has eliminated this cruelty, which I myself once endured. Set up a Google Alert on yourself, your current company, and any prospective firms on your watch list today.
2. Control the dialogue. Politicians have learned that if they don’t put out material to fill the airways (press releases, pitches, and miscellaneous storylines), the newsmedia — or their rivals — will do it for them, and that’s not going to be pretty. Someone is going to control the dialogue and it might as well be you. Start writing your blog posts or recording your podcasts now.
3. Create your fan base. When a candidate is attacked, they have defenders — armed with talking points — ready to rebut the negative charges. And they also have a proactive battalion of “letter to the editor” writers, peppering their local papers with laudatory missives. Who’s in your fan club? Start reaching out now to trusted colleagues, friends, and allies. If you have a professional goal, they can help by talking you up, searching for leads and more.
Putting forward your personal brand requires ongoing vigilance. What are your campaign strategies?
This post originally appeared on the Harvard Business Review website.
Dorie Clark is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. She is the author of Reinventing You (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). You can follow her on Twitter at @dorieclark.