Are You Ready to Become Public Property?
By Frances Denz
Many of us are developing our careers and becoming known to others outside the smallish pond that consists of friends and colleagues. Friends and colleagues may know us warts and all but they have formed an opinion on us over time that balances the good with the bad, and our relationships are based on that mix. We don’t necessarily include all our friends in all our activities and they don’t either. Not all our friends like each other either.
But these relationships are built over time and with knowledge about us as whole people. As we become known to a wider range of people, and involved in more and more activities, people want bios from us that give a snapshot of who we are. And then sometimes journalists decide to write an article about us that often starts from a bio they have seen, or from someone else’s story.
Suddenly our lives become public property. Journalists don’t always focus on the story you want told, but one that they believe will sell more papers, magazines or whatever. They want something juicy that others haven’t used. They will dig, ask leading questions, and research other stories about you or about a related incident to try and find “news”.
This can be very uncomfortable! I have recently had an article written about me for a glossy magazine by a freelance journalist. The magazine then asked some very personal questions that were only peripherally related to the story, and left me feeling that the story was being hi-jacked away from the original to something that did not reflect me at all. I have yet to see the end result and am in slight trepidation.
Managing and Preparing
So what can we do to ensure that the publicity about us is good publicity that we are comfortable with, not negative or highlighting things in our past that we do not wish to be highlighted?
Most of us cannot afford to have a publicist to manage this for us but we can do some preparation ahead of time to ensure that we can take maximum advantage of any publicity offered.
Using the principles of dressing for the job you want, consider the image you need to develop to support your career goals. This image has to be something that reflects your core values and beliefs, otherwise you won’t be able to sustain it over time, and others will sense the dissonance between the reality and pretend.
Checking Your Past
From a public perspective, does your past support your future? Do you have skeletons in your cupboard that you would much prefer others don’t know about? What is in the public record about you? You really need to do a serious Google session to find out what is out there now and in what order. Casual checks on you might not find them, but is there anything that a serious digger would find? Serious diggers may easily use nasties against you – not necessarily because they have anything against you personally, but to demonstrate power to others… a secret form of blackmail if you like.
What To Do with Your Weak Points
Many years ago I was standing for elections. Going to my first election meeting the cab driver said to me, “You’re Frances, aren’t you?” and went on to say that he had been a flat mate of mine some twenty years earlier, and had been the person who had found me and dialed 111 when I had taken an overdose. Suddenly, at a time when I was selling myself as being capable of being a Member of Parliament my largest skeleton rattled.
And I went into my first public meeting rattling myself. In a split second I had to decide that I might need to expose my past apparent mental health problems. In fact, the issue never surfaced, but it might have. When I had time to reflect on it, I made the decision that I needed a philosophy of full disclosure, but to frame it in a way that others could empathise with, not condemn me for.
Reframing the event is a useful technique, and not only helps if there is public disclosure, but also with one’s own internalising of the event. It reduces the power of something negative in your life.
So check your skeletons, put a short positive story around them, perhaps about why, or what you learnt from it, so people do not just focus on the event, but relate to the outcome. You will note that I framed the above story about the decision I made from the above experience.
You Cannot Hide Your Story
Not only are we a small country here in New Zealand, but we have become a small world with the internet, Facebook, LinkedIn etc, and while we all know the problems the electronic media can create, it is amazing how many of us still fall into traps! Photos are now taken everywhere by everyone. And photoshopping is available to everyone as well. I was a little distressed to find how many casual photos of me exist where I am holding a wine glass in my hand. It looks as though I spend my life drinking wine, which is not true! However, it could be my visible persona if I don’t take care to also have a lot of good non-wine glass photos around as well.
It can be helpful to have several bios on file of different word lengths -100, 200, 300, and with several different angles and emphases. While you may have to adjust these to the requirements, if you are under time pressures to produce one it is much easier to have a base to work from. And you are much less likely to include little put-downs of yourself if they are prepared beforehand.
I find bios that include personal stuff such as the number of children you have or the fact you are married or where you went to school are a real turnoff if the bio is for business reasons. As a reader, I want to know your achievements. Having children is not a skill that makes you electable in my view, unless it is for a child-related activity. But if it is a soft article for NZ Women’s Weekly it might be relevant.
And when someone asks for a hundred words or whatever, that is what you give them. If you don’t they will edit it themselves and might take out something that you really want left in.
Keep your bios on Facebook, LinkedIn etc up to date and make sure they are “on message”.
How To Shine a Light on Your Strong Points
As a country which detests tall poppies we have to watch this syndrome in ourselves! We downplay our own expertise in case anyone thinks we are boasting and then we believe our own reduced evaluation of ourselves. But we have to be sure the good things about ourselves are what people “want to buy” and these are what you publicise.
Recently I was mentoring a very senior person who had been successful in his own narrow field. He wanted to change direction. He had recently completed a PhD and was very proud of it. His personal promotional materials (CV) highlighted his research paper, which was in fact irrelevant for the new career he wanted. He wanted a job producing results – not researching them. In fact that information was in his past life and needed pulling out of the morass of information to provide clarity to those who were seeking to employ him.
An Image That Matches Where You’re Heading (Not Where You’ve Been)
I have come to the conclusion that linguistics create huge problems and huge opportunities. Jargon excludes people and if you don’t know the language used by those you want to impress, they will not even include you in their consideration. If you use their language, they will unconsciously think “you are one of us” and rank you accordingly. Therefore your written materials must use the language of the group you want to impress in the future. Warm fluffies and new ageisms can be a real turn off to hard nosed business men. You may think they need your warm friendly approach on their board – but they don’t. So you won’t be heard.
If you have warm fluffies in abundance on Google, you need to add a considerable amount of hard fact stuff if your market has changed over the years and you need to impress a different group of people. And you need to make sure that the new you comes to the top in any searches.
What Is Not on the Table for Public Record?
Currently our media are happy to exclude stories about your family if you are clear that they are not to be discussed to preserve their privacy. But if you have lots of information about your partner or your kids publicly available on Facebook etc, the media will consider that the information is already public and you have abrogated the right to privacy. So you will need to decide before the event whether or not you are going to include or exclude family from scrutiny. But you do have to be consistent.
How Will You Cope if a Negative Story Comes Out?
Usually the best answer is to ignore it. Most people don’t read papers or remember what they heard on television and if you don’t feed the story by responding it dies very quickly. Mark Todd’s publicist managed this brilliantly some years ago, and one has to admire the speed with which the story was shut down and Mark was rehabilitated in the public mind.
Some years ago, when I was standing for election for a board, there was what felt like a huge public attack on me by competing interests. I won, but was bruised by the experience. Recently I went through the press stories and letters to the editor and was stunned to find that there were only two negative stories and three people who wrote nasty letters to the editor and they spend their lives writing nasty letters about everyone. So the reality I remembered was not the one others remember! I was not attacked by everyone as I thought.
However, problems on the internet are much more damaging and bullying is a very real problem. It will be interesting to see if the new legislation makes managing this easier. Managing this is not my area of expertise. All I can suggest is that you have an overwhelming number of positive articles about you for Google to pull up first.
Make your story interesting to the public, and be sure you have the key things you want highlighted in appropriate “bites”. Politicians and other successful public figures know how to incorporate short sound bites into their speeches and interviews which will put them or their idea in a positive light.
Many years ago I was at a conference for aspiring Labour Party candidates and Richard Prebble was asked to demonstrate his ability to produce short soundbites on any topic instantly. He was told he had x number of seconds on such and such a topic and he delivered on demand. It was a fascinating example of the technique of sound bites. If you are about to have a radio or TV interview make sure you know what you want to say and develop a small number of soundbites before the interview. And use them.
Cut and Paste
When you are interviewed you don’t have to answer the question exactly as it is put. They will cut the interview down to a tiny percentage so include the sound bites at some point even if the question has not been clearly asked. They will provide the linkages anyway.
Even TV interviews are cut and pasted. So you have a face to face interview with the cameras mostly on you. And after the interview is finished, the interviewer repeats the questions without you responding, for the camera. These are cut and pasted later and the questions he asked are not always attached to the questions you answered either, which can be disconcerting but remember they are preparing a story for sale, for the news market, and that is the picture they will paint. Good luck with developing your image.
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