If you were driving to go to a job interview in a new city, would you forget to research the company, get into your car wearing ripped jeans, and not bother to bring a GPS or a map?

I didn’t think so. Urban landscape

But every day, aspiring journalists set up Twitter accounts exactly that way, hoping to attract business that never comes.

Some of us leave Twitter’s default images of eggs up as our profile photos.

Some of us use Twitter to post about our nightlife and coffee habits. If nightlife and coffee aren’t part of your beat, it’s generally best not to post about them much.

Some of us aren’t sure what we want our niches or beats to be, so we post randomly about anything – and follow anyone. This is also not a good idea. In journalism, specialists earn more than generalists, I find.

Some of us use Twitter to be one-way communicators – broadcasting our own content, but never retweeting or interacting. But on Twitter and in real life, being a good listener is part of being a good conversationalist.

Some of us are drawn into controversial conversations that are unrelated to our beats or interests. Keep a sticky note up as a reminder not to join these discussions, if necessary. Unless you want to become known as highly political, don’t go there. And if a troll starts bothering you, handle it sensibly and move on.

But perhaps most importantly, many of us really don’t know how to plumb the depths of Twitter’s search and list features to find the hashtags and search terms that could be valuable to us.

Did you know you can make a large list of your competitors by looking for keywords related to your specialty and adding your fellow writers to a new list?

Did you know you can make a list of potential sources by looking up keywords related to your beat or to target organizations?

Did you know you can make a list of potential employers and their staff? Look for hiring managers and be sure to include them. Search for keywords related to employers – or names of their organizations.

My favorite list contains tweets from a group of news editors whose work I admire. My main career goal is to edit news websites and magazines, so I am watching my peers and role models to see what they are posting.

You can also use keyword searches related to articles you have written or topics you want to follow.

Is there a conference you’ve missed this week? Look up the conference hashtag, search for it, and take notes or participate in the conversation.

Finally, don’t forget to look up hashtags like #journalismjobs, #scicomm, and #mediadiversity when you are job hunting. Or try combinations of words – like “journalism job Chicago” without the quotes.

This post is loosely based on insights from a Twitter workshop I delivered for Science Writers of Western Massachusetts on June 27, 2015. For more info about our group, please visit our Facebook page. For details about my journalism and teaching experience, please visit my LinkedIn bio.

Sometimes a picture is worth 200 Twitter follows. That’s what Ceres‘s online communications director, Brian Sant, learned when he ran a campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota. Oil companies use these flares to burn away unwanted natural gas they do not plan to save or sell.

North Dakota’s natural gas flares are visible from the night sky and rival major cities in their brightness. Sant circulated the following photo of the night landscape of North America via social media and email. The response was electric. Writers picked up the story.

North Dakota gas flares light the night sky
A photo from Ceres’s campaign to stop natural gas flares in North Dakota.

Sant showed the results of this campaign at New England Women in Energy and the Environment‘s March 14 panel discussion, Social Media Success in the Energy and Environmental Sectors. He also described how he uses podcasts, videos and infographics to make data attractive for social media distribution.

Sarah Finnie Robinson, founding partner at Practically Green, talked about her exploration of the nuances of behavior change. Working with an enthusiastic group of interns and staff, she develops social software that companies and individuals can use to alter their environmental behavior.

Practically Green is building on the current wave of interest in gamification – making activities more like computer games – and integrating that approach with social media. The resulting product makes conserving water and other resources less like doing a chore and more like using Facebook.

“You’re not alone,” one of Robinson’s slides said. Robinson wants her software to engage people in communication, not just give them tasks to do in isolation. Based on the rapid expansion of demand for her product, this approach is certainly working.

Cindy Jolicoeur, vice president of Marketing Drive, used a different tactic in her work with the Mass Save energy efficiency program. She leveraged consumer interest in sharing information about deals and taking advantage of discounts to build the fan base for the Mass Save Facebook page from around 2,000 to over 15,000. These likes came as a result of targeted promotions and advertising across multiple media. Consumers developed a relationship with Mass Save and used the page to ask questions about energy efficiency.

“People want to connect with people,” said Cindy Hoots, corporate social responsibility account director at Cone Communications. She encouraged the audience to be informal on social media. Being able to respond on the fly is crucial, she said. She recommended keeping an unofficial FAQ on hand to use in response to stakeholder comments.

“Not all these stakeholders are friendly,” Hoots said. “Some can be a thorn in your side. Others may have an activist bent.”

Building relationships with stakeholders is a complex process, Hoots said. First, one needs to identify who they are. Second, one needs to understand their values and priorities. Third, one needs to learn how to reach them. And that’s just the first phase of action. One also needs to prioritize influencers, reach out to them, and offer them resources they want.

Hoots recommended two online tools for identifying influencers: Traackr and SocMetrics. These sites can give one basic information about the behavior of influencers and help one develop a plan for building relationships.

There are many ways communicators can engage stakeholders and build support for sustainable actions. This discussion demonstrated how Twitter, Hootsuite, Facebook, and other social media tools can support energy and environmental organizations in reaching their goals successfully. Sometimes, all it takes is a surprising picture.

What is shibui? It’s a Japanese aesthetic quality described by Wikipedia as a combination of qualities including simplicity, modesty, silence, naturalness, everydayness and imperfection. Objects that display shibui may be functional art. They often have gray mixed into their coloring. People can also show shibui qualities in their character or behavior. For example, someone who contributes to the success of a group without self-promoting is behaving in a shibui way.

In the world of social media, there is a shortage of shibui. We are surrounded by voices clamoring for attention. Some organizations advocate creating memes and telling stories to break through the noise. Many marketers use a “hard sell” approach in which they repost content often or email audiences many times. I’ve been advised by marketing professionals more than once to send similar emails to people five times to get their attention.

Branding is the hammer behind the nail of marketing. Personal brands are like armor, both asserting and disguising the identity of the professionals behind them. I’ve written about the flaws of personal branding here before – including how creating a personal brand can be challenging for people from underrepresented groups.

In this noisy and overly assertive climate, some shibui would help diffuse the pressure. Here are some thoughts on how qualities of shibui can alter the climate of heavy self-promotion that seems to be so common in social media and communications in the northeastern United States.

Simplicity is underrated in some circles. But describing things clearly, accurately and straightforwardly breaks down many communication barriers. Simplicity can help one reach audiences of different class, work and educational backgrounds. It can also help media-saturated readers relax and focus on the essential information one’s trying to communicate. In recent years, web designers have gravitated toward simple, unobtrusive layouts; writers can do the same with their copy.

Silence is a very intriguing tool for communicators. Pausing while conducting an interview can lead to unexpected revelations. Choosing what to leave unsaid is part of a journalist’s craft; these choices can make or break an article. For content curators, choosing what to omit is as important as choosing what to include. Advertisers are aware of the power of these qualities and sometimes leave their audiences guessing on purpose. Taking time to listen and watch what others are doing is important for social media managers.

Modesty, everydayness and naturalness are qualities that can win respect but are often ignored in high-visibility fields. Many people view salespeople and publicists with mistrust because they believe there is a lack of authenticity in their communication. In some cultures and fields, there is a real distrust of salesmanship. I grew up around many people who were influenced by Mexican culture. They told me modesty was valued relatively highly in their families and social circles. In environmentalist social circles, many people mistrust artificiality and self-promotion too. Eco-friendly product marketing often addresses this preference.

Imperfection is powerful. It can humanize people and organizations. Being able to admit flaws, apologize and learn from one’s mistakes can help one build real relationships. Brene Brown has written about how vulnerability and taking risks can make people more empowered. But in high-visibility professions, there can be immense pressure in the other direction – pressure to be perfect, have all the answers, and never have a bad hair day. Media can exacerbate this pressure. It’s impossible for a famous person – even a talented and well-known marketer – to look perfect to everyone. Striving for an illusion of flawlessness reduces one’s ability to connect with people on a human, healthy and real level. When personal branding is based on creating illusions of perfection, it contributes to this problem.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to be authentic in how I use media and mass communication. This is difficult; there are many pressures in the other direction. But I believe that, in the end, respectful honesty can build credibility and relationships. High-pressure marketing and personal branding can have the opposite effect.

Shibui can empower people and organizations to communicate clearly and sincerely.

A recent article from NetSquared profiles best practices from environmental nonprofits’ Facebook pages. The article quotes researchers who recommend using photos (with or without overlay text), sharing links to other websites, and experimenting to find out what succeeds or fails.

Here are a few tips from my own experiences with Facebook page management. I maintain pages for multiple nonprofits and am perennially looking for new tools and resources to improve our content and engagement. Since many people are working on building reputations as social media professionals, there are plenty of publications out there on this subject.

  1. Be inspiring. Consistently, my posts that get the best responses are inspiring. They may be visually striking images or inspirational messages that speak to the imaginations of my audiences. For example, one of my audiences includes people who are in a stressful profession. Posting tips on relaxation and mindfulness caught their interest.
  2. Ask simple questions. Questions pique readers’ curiosity, but asking people to engage at a high level too quickly may discourage them. Asking questions on Facebook is like dating: would you bring out a diamond ring on the second date? Of course not. Similarly, with social media, you need to build rapport before making major requests.
  3. Leverage your e-mail list and website. Use e-mail to direct people to your Facebook page by mentioning exclusive content that is only available on Facebook. You can also use your website to point people toward your Facebook content.
  4. Have the scoop. What information do you know that your audience might want to learn? What resources are at your fingertips – or sitting in your in-box, gathering dust? What tips and ideas can you add to your social media content to make it valuable to readers?
  5. Be newsworthy. Tie your Facebook content in with current events, major news stories, and local announcements that will be of interest to your visitors. Keep your content timely, interesting and relevant.

Dale Carnegie’s advice holds true for social media managers: if you want to earn the respect, interest and trust of your audiences, be a good listener. Don’t talk about yourself or your organization continually. Talk about other topics of mutual interest. Share other articles. Be a good conversationalist and social media will reward you.

My father could have been a great social media professional. He is over 80 and still does not have an e-mail address. But he is an excellent networker. He keeps index cards with the contact information of people he has met, sends them news clippings that interest them, and engages in long conversations. He does all of this by snail mail and phone after an opening conversation where he learns what their interests are.

This is exactly the same approach one should take toward building connections on social media. Figure out what you can offer your audience. Share stories with them. Develop relationships through communicating about ideas, asking questions, and sharing news. Add value to their lives. Don’t assume that your organization’s updates have intrinsic interest for all your readers. Make your conversation two-way. And don’t get out the diamond ring too soon.

“Will you share my Facebook page with all 200 of your friends?”

When I was a college student, I felt free to explore different interests and groups without worrying about how that would affect my personal brand. Now, recent graduates sit through workshops like “Careers, Beers and the Brand Called You.” Although I promoted this workshop via NetSquared Boston, I didn’t attend it – for a reason.

Although I understand the value of personal branding from a business standpoint, I believe business values have infiltrated the personal and creative spheres of people who are seeking to market themselves. In some ways, this is a good thing; in other ways, it can be destructive.

Vintage mirror and jewelryYou are not your image. (Source: stock.xchng)

You Are Not Your Career

Recent evidence from the recession shows that economic downturns can lead to suicides. The people most likely to commit suicide in Europe seem to be those with strong career aspirations – the upwardly mobile and entrepreneurial people who are most likely to engage in personal branding.

Think about it. If you are your brand and you suffer economic hardship, what does that say about your worth as a human being? What does that say about your marketability? It’s not a surprise that people who overidentify with their careers become hopeless in these situations.

I’m a fan of the Seven Habits series and believe that having a strong source of internal purpose and mission is important to career survival and happiness. This means that one’s purpose is not the same as one’s brand.

One’s purpose is like a compass; one’s brand is like a vehicle that gets one to the next destination. Building a brand is useful, but it is no substitute for having a source of self-worth that is independent from how one makes a living.

You Have the Right to Experiment

I had a long e-mail conversation with Bill Lascher last year about how branding one’s writing can limit one’s creative freedom. For example, if a woman who’s been writing chick lit for 10 years decides to produce a novel about the Vietnam War, her web presence will need a makeover.

It took me a long time to develop the brand for this blog. The urban environmental version of this blog did a great job of encapsulating my journalism interests. But it didn’t convey most of what I do for a living. There are two halves to my work – the freelance journalism and the work I do for established environmental, science and/or technology organizations. I updated my website to include both of these sides of my writing.

My interests are multifaceted and do not distill down into a sound bite easily. Luckily, environmental issues and technology are such broad topics that I have no shortage of ideas to explore. I have a genre, but it’s not a very limiting genre.

Still, even with this relatively flexible definition, I still am not my brand. In my free time, I do a lot of dancing. The type of dance I do combines martial arts, yoga, jazz dance and modern dance. There are many other things I do that don’t fit into my brand neatly either.

You Don’t Owe the Internet an Explanation

If you’re trying to maintain a consistent brand, you may police your online presence. This is an overrated activity. It is not fun; also, it can limit your participation in activities you enjoy because you are too busy watching your paper trail.

Idealistically speaking, as long as whatever you are doing is legal and reasonably ethical, it shouldn’t matter if it comes up on the first page of a search. However, there may be some types of material – for example, your memoir about your years as a bartender – that fall into a gray area. Employers exclude applicants based on evidence of alcohol consumption and may not appreciate the candid nature and literary quality of your writing. Appearance discrimination is also alive and well online, so simple hairstyle changes can become stressful choices.

The advice “to thine own self be true” is difficult to follow if you are a writer engaging in personal branding. If you’re a real estate agent who has never written a controversial blog post in her life, then personal branding is easy – get a headshot and you’re done. I suspect most writers find this process difficult.

Ironically, although writers are encouraged to focus on marketing and branding, authenticity is what fuels good writing. Being able to sit with a pen or computer and face exactly what one wants to say is part of the creative process. Personal branding can short-circuit that experience, substituting image maintenance for real self-expression.

You Aren’t in Charge of Your Image

Personal branding requires writers and other creative content producers to take a hard look in the mirror. Now, more than ever, we are subjected to the whims of search engines and online conversations. Most of this is completely outside our control.

Personal brand advocates seem to downplay the following point: as marketers of our own work, we are not in charge of how other people respond to us. We are only responsible for what we say. We are not responsible for whether or not people like us. If people photograph us in an unflattering way, that is outside our control.

In the world of branding and social media, it’s important to recognize that we do not control our images. We can create them and shape them. We can alter them. But they are a collaborative creation – and some of that creation is done by our audience. Studies show that people will misread much of what we post online.

We can’t hold ourselves responsible for how people see us; we are only responsible for what we say and do. In a world where people may not judge us by our actions, we can continue to hold that standard for ourselves and others. We can keep our self-images separate from our personal brands. And we can recognize image evaluation is a weak substitute for assessment of character.

I started writing queries to editors via social media because I realized how much journalists love their blogs and Twitter accounts. So when I wrote a marketing plan that included meeting editors online, I looked on Twitter.

According to the Pew Foundation, only eight percent of the United States population uses Twitter. Twitter users are well-educated innovators; they cluster occupationally and demographically. They’re professionally experienced, often work in computer and media fields, and are increasingly likely to be Latino.

Combining these pieces of information shows that senior-level media professionals are likely to make up a larger-than-average fraction of the pie chart. Since I was looking for editors, Twitter was a logical place to find them. (Another useful site for meeting subject-matter experts is Quora.)

A website called Muckrack makes it easy to find well-known journalists’ Twitter accounts. Muckrack aggregates tweets from writers at many publications. Watching Muckrack is one quick way to get the pulse of conversations at a news organization.

When I opened my Twitter account, I was taking a break from freelancing. I used the site solely for news reading for over half a year. This gave me lists of target publications which I could contact later; I use Twitter’s list feature to sort the sources I read. Twitter’s list feature allows me to group sources by topic for easier reading. This feature is like a filing system for incoming tweets.

I enrolled in a series of social media trainings that taught me how to use Twitter more interactively than I’d done before. After these trainings, I created a list called “networking” and began adding editors and journalists to it. As I followed these new contacts, some of them followed me back. I began asking them questions, reading the news that interested them, and passing along their tweets to my readers.

Once I was ready to take my show on the road and send a few queries out, I looked at the “networking” list, picked out likely publications, thought of a few story ideas, and started contacting the editors via Twitter. Since some of the editors were following me already, I was able to message them.

My Twitter response rate for queries has been more reliable than email for some publications. After I have the editor’s address, I follow the 140-character query with an email. Once I have built a relationship on Twitter, I maintain it by staying in contact and forwarding links occasionally (including @username in a tweet that may interest the editor).

Social media are changing the dynamics of science communication. If you visualize communication as a flow chart, the arrow is no longer pointing in just one direction. Here are some examples.

  1. User interface design research shows how much readers appreciate audience-oriented websites. When the creators of Facebook wanted their site to become popular, they didn’t design a website with pages for each of their departments; they focused on user interaction. Audience goals and interests determine the site design.
  2. Social media outreach requires time; it is an ongoing community-building project. In the past, organizations would post reports online and expect readers to track them down. Today, many readers seek out groups that will communicate with them. Static content isn’t as attention-getting as it was a few years ago.
  3. If you’re interested in science or research but don’t have a degree in the field, you can participate in online citizen science projects, wiki writing and crowdsourced fact-checking. In the 1980s, these opportunities didn’t exist yet.

Changing the social dynamics of science has both positive and negative effects. Unscientific America points out that there are many unreliable sources competing with more accurate ones for air time. Reviewing content collaboratively can address many of these issues, but quality control is also important. Some websites, including Quora, are making sustained efforts to provide reliable answers. If someone posts on Wikipedia that a UFO landed at the royal wedding in Britain, it’s likely that an editor will fix the entry.

I’ve decided to profile several groups I think are doing a good job of constructing environmental messages online.

The first organization, Planet Southie, is a small, volunteer-run group in South Boston – a working-class neighborhood with many Irish families. Planet Southie maintains a friendly, action-oriented and concise website. The group’s community focus and welcoming attitude are obvious.

Planet Southie’s web content supports two-way conversations and offline organizing. Almost every post on the site includes an invitation to take environmental action or provide feedback. Planet Southie is using a “boots on the ground” approach to social media; with limited resources, the group is focusing on building community participation. Planet Southie’s newsletter is both visually appealing and practical.

So far, the site offers few opportunities for people in other communities to support Planet Southie’s work. Planet Southie could expand its reach by considering audiences outside the neighborhood (including media).