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The Pitfalls of Personal Branding

The Pitfalls of Personal Branding
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One of the key tenets of personal branding is to build an identity that stands out and gets noticed. At least, that’s the theory. The problem is that the pursuit of attention can be a slippery slope that ends with your virtual persona doing serious damage to your real reputation.   

Remember Justine Sacco, the IAC PR director who famously posted this on Twitter before boarding a flight to South Africa last December?:

The Pitfalls of Personal Branding

The tweet went viral and, by the time she landed, half the world thought Sacco was an insensitive racist jerk. A few days later, she was fired. But the far greater impact is that, for the rest of her life, a Google search of Sacco’s name will turn up a million or so results about the offensive tweet before getting to anything else about the woman.

The irony is that Sacco’s father grew up in South Africa and she was actually born there. And, by all accounts, she is not a bigot, a bad person, or an idiot. She’s a talented professional who had learned that outrageous tweets got the attention of her Twitter followers.

Related: The 7 Easiest Ways to Insult Important People

I doubt if Sacco ever realized she was even on a slippery slope until she slid right off and into the abyss.

Likewise, there’s a popular reality TV show on Bravo called Vanderpump Rules. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills spinoff follows the wild and incestuous lives of several mostly twenty-something waiters and bartenders at SUR, a West Hollywood restaurant.

While the show’s cast of millennials are smart to grasp the opportunity to boost their fledgling modeling and acting careers, some of their narcissistic and self-destructive on-air behavior may have exactly the opposite effect.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think these people come from wealthy, well-connected families like the Hiltons and the Kardashians. Other than nominal good looks, they don’t appear to be super-talented. And I doubt if the show is popular enough for them to negotiate fat contracts.

In other words, they are going to need to get hired in the future. And for those who act like whiny, petulant train wrecks with questionable morals and horrendous work ethic, that’s going to be a real challenge.

Like it or not, the show is their resume. And whatever your impression of Hollywood, there is no shortage of young, talented, good-looking, wannabe actors and models. So the supply and demand equation is not in their favor.

Related: How to Think Differently to Succeed in a Complex World

Now, if you’re sitting there thinking that you’re just a regular person who’s not about to make such poor decisions no matter how desperate you are, that’s great. But here’s the thing: Nobody sets out to make dumb decisions. Nobody intends to damage his reputation. Nobody ever sits down and wonders, how can I make myself unemployable?

Here are a few things to keep in mind so you don’t end up making the biggest mistake of your life without even realizing it:

The internet is forever. I just don’t know how else to say this in a way that really gets through to people. If you wouldn’t want it to show up anytime someone Googles your name between now and the end of time, don’t say it, do it, or post it.

Not all PR is good PR. Not only is the age-old rule “any PR is good PR” not true, it’s even less true today than it’s ever been. Don’t believe me? Some day I’ll have to tell you how I once got Bill Gates really POed and nearly destroyed a key relationship with Microsoft.  

Keep your dysfunctions where they belong … buried in your subconscious. We all have issues, but some people insist on taking them out and displaying them to everyone wherever they go. Don’t be your own worst enemy.

Promote your genuine talents, not your delusions of grandeur. One of the Vanderpump Rules people gets up on tables and sings every chance she gets. The only problem is she has a terrible voice, at least in my opinion. It’s great to have aspirations, but there are smarter ways to explore your potential than doing it in front of a million viewers. 

Try not to be ludicrous. You can proclaim yourself a social media guru (like you’re the only one), the CEO of a one-person company, or an entrepreneur because you once sold a comic book on eBay. It’s annoying, but not career-threatening.

You can even write your Twitter handle upside down and backwards in hieroglyphics or list every acronym of every degree and certification you’ve ever earned after your name on LinkedIn, for all I care. I think that’s silly, but whatever.

Just remember this. No matter what all the self-proclaimed experts have to say, your reputation, your personal brand – whatever you want to call it – really rests on just one thing: your credibility. It’s the hardest thing to build and the easiest thing to destroy. Just ask Justine Sacco.

Related: 9 Reasons Why Most Startups Fail

Steve Tobak is management consultant, executive coach, columnist, and former senior executive of the high-tech industry. As managing partner of Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting, he's been a trusted strategic advisor to executives and business leaders for more than a decade. Contact Tobak.

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