hot not to be a professional

9 May 2012

What Does “Professional” Mean in the Social Media Era? Not This…

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Social Media Realist; photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash…

So a Harvard Business Review article will tell you what it means to be professional in the social media era. It begins with a compelling example of how the Susan G. Komen Foundation bungled its recent image problems, while Planned Parenthood used social media to handle their controversies with aplomb. Nice case.

Then the article spins out of control…

It uses that one case and the usual tired cliches, stats, and “experts” to argue that everyone should be “transparent” and embrace social media. It includes this table of old professionals vs. new professionals:

Source: Allison Fine, “What Does ‘Professional’ Look Like Today,” HBR, 5/9/2012

Cute. My response?

  • Finally, this current political season shows the hazards of expressing one’s true interests and passions in any kind of media, since partisan extremists will insist that candidates toe a hard line, no matter how honest and competent they are. (See “Huntsman, Jon.”)

My point: there are just as many failures when it comes to being “transparent” and “social” as there are success stories. We can’t just use a few examples to prove anything; as the saying goes, “the plural of anecdote is not data.” Regardless of the hype du jour, we must conduct critical analyses of what works best for our brands in our markets.

So what is a professional?

A few years ago, I wrote my own take on the word “professional.” My key points involved respect, dedication, and being appropriate. On this last point I wrote:

“A true professional understands the environment, audience, and occasion, then comports herself appropriately. Yes, this sometimes means wearing a suit, but at other times, it might mean wearing jeans and an ironic logo T-shirt. (Though at no time does it ever mean wearing Crocs.) She speaks at the level of her audience, never over their heads, but without pandering to their slang or mannerisms. Joking around is totally fine — even encouraged — as long as her tone is appropriate for the audience. (Some groups don’t mind a strategic f-bomb.)”

Professionalism doesn’t require being “transparent” or “authentic.” Indeed, I find the whole “authenticity” movement flawed, hypocritical, even reckless. Call me cynical, but instead of being “authentic,” we need to be realistic about what works in a fiercely competitive marketplace. “Just be yourself” sounds nice, and perhaps you should do that if you’re seeking a spouse; but when it comes to business, “be yourself” is the biggest lie that adults tell young people. The adult world requires a lot of posturing, positioning, and posing to get the job and to keep it. Yes, people do put on acts and cover up their flaws to get a job, client, promotion, raise, or foundation grant.

In today’s marketplace, you need to emphasize your expertise, not your peccadilloes. Why do you think people write for the Harvard Business Review in the first place?


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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

One Response

  1. You had me at “Limousine liberals.”

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