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Illustration by iStock; Security Management

How to Build and Maintain a Personal Brand

What is your personal brand? You might think you don’t have one, but you do—it’s the impression that you give to others through your words, actions, and connections. The challenge is how to influence and maintain your personal brand so that you drive your own reputation across your personal and professional networks. This can involve being more vocal and intentional on public-facing platforms such as social media, which makes many security professionals—both in the public and private sectors—a little nervous.

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But staying quiet behind the scenes gives a false sense of safety, says Lida Citroën, CEO of personal branding and reputation management firm Lida360 and a speaker in the upcoming 2022 CSO Center Leadership Series from ASIS International. The concept of anonymity and remaining undercover is practically impossible today, so personal branding is about controlling how you expose your views and yourself, and doing it in a very mindful, intentional way by setting boundaries between personal and private personas while leveraging your reputation to achieve security and personal goals.

“We need security professionals right now, and we need them to be confident. We need them to be clear and to communicate what they stand for,” Citroën says. “There’s so much uncertainty, and this is a community of our population that has the tools and the training to keep us protected.

"I think when [security professionals] look at their work through that lens, there’s a whole different element. And self-promotion doesn't mean being arrogant. Branding doesn't mean boasting, but it means being really clear about who you are, who you want to serve, and how you want people to experience you.”

The shift from managing how people experience you in-person to online has required an additional layer of caution and thoughtfulness, she cautions, but social media also gives leaders an opportunity to shore up their personal brand and manage reputational risk.

“If you’re talking on LinkedIn about things that have nothing to do with your industry but you want me to see you as a serious security professional, there’s a disconnect,” Citroën adds. “If you hang out with people who are risky and unappealing and post offensive content but you want me to take you seriously, that’s inconsistency. Personal branding is not about perfection, but it is about consistency, and we just want to button up all those touchpoints. That’s the best way to reduce risk.”

Security Management connected with Citroën before her CSO Center Leadership Series session, “You Must Stand for Something: Do You Want to Stand Out in the Crowd?” for a conversation about reputation, risk, and building an effective and honest personal brand.

This conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity. The CSO Leadership Series will be held in May 2022 and is free for CSO Center members. 

SM. To start, what is a personal brand?

LC. A personal brand is similar to a corporate brand in that a brand is an expectation of an experience. A brand is actually the feeling that a customer, an employer, a mentor, or somebody who is interacting with that product, service, or person experiences.

Personal branding is the process or the practice of being intentional and focused and consistent with how you promote yourself, how you show up so to speak in the way that you communicate, the way that you behave and the people that you hang out with. Most people don't think about how important reputation is, but reputation is what other people use to base their perception. What do I think about you? What do I feel about you?

My perception might be based on stereotypes or biases or even information that I have gathered but I’ve put together wrong. So, your job in managing your personal brand is to know what my perception is so that you can change that or modify it or redirect it if the perception isn’t right.

SM. What is the value of that brand in putting yourself out there? What can you get back as a security professional or as just a leader in your organization?

LC. For anyone being intentional, being found in the right way is what we all want. We don’t want people to have misperceptions about us. We don’t want them to have an idea of who we are and what we can offer that’s not true. If there’s misperception, we can fix that.

Being out there means you’re out there in a very controlled way: I only put on LinkedIn what I want you to find. I only post content that is consistent with my values and my brand and the reputation I’m building. I’m only associating with people who support how I want to be seen. That’s what it means to be out there and that’s what it means to be intentional and focused. Most people don't think about it, and so they make connections online, they befriend the wrong person at work, or they say something off the cuff, and they don’t realize that that has implications on their higher ability and their growth within the organization.

The advantage to security professionals who are sitting there saying, 'Ah, it's too risky,' is first to acknowledge that you’re already findable online. Why not be in control of the way you show up online, instead of having it be haphazard? You’re randomly tagged in photos, and you don’t know who tagged you and you don’t really care because so what if they show you doing something offensive, you don’t really hang out with those people. That offensive photo where you're tagged—if your boss finds it or HR finds it—can be a real problem even though you didn’t put it out there.

Personal branding is not about perfection, but it is about consistency.

SM. How has the advent of social media and having this online presence changed reputational management?

LC. It used to be, if I wanted to gossip about you, I would do it over the fence to my neighbor and it stayed there unless she went and told people. Now, we can get online and post it on social media—cancel culture has entered a whole new realm of risk.

The risk is going to be there whether you’re active or not. Managing that risk on social media means you take charge of the content you want out there.

For instance, I do a lot of work with the military. I'm doing this because I’m really grateful to live in a country where I have freedoms that other people have fought for. That’s part of my DNA, it’s part of my messaging, it's part of my brand, and it's part of my heart. I am so vocal about it that if someone were to ever challenge me online—make an accusation about my intentions or why I do the work that I do—that little voice of negative would be outweighed by all this positive and all these other people who have interacted with me and have that experience of why I do what I do. That’s what branding gives you. It gives you some insulation from some of those contradictory voices.

When somebody has a reputation crisis—that is a specialty of mine, reputation repair—the first thing they tend to do is they take all their social media down because they don’t want to be found. They want to hide. Then that little contradictory voice has become really big because it’s the only voice out there, so it actually works counterintuitive to what people think it does.

SM. There’s a big shift right now in corporations towards corporate activism. Managers must deal with employee activism, and the expectation is that leaders are going to take a stance. How can security professionals get to that point of putting themselves and their personal views out there, aligning those views with their brand, but also being able to keep some things private?

LC. I think if more people ask themselves that question, that would save a lot of problems. I think more people are speaking before they think, and that’s where we get people acting tone-deaf or making inappropriate comments or going off before they’ve thought it all the way through.

We want to hear from our leaders. We want to know that their values, their goals, and their mission align with what we believe the company stands for. It’s important for employees, customers, stakeholders, and the outside world to see that, but that doesn’t mean you have to jump in on everything.

One of the things I talk a lot about—especially with social media—is boundaries. We’re allowed to keep some things private. I have very strong political views, I have very strong religious views, but you don’t see me posting about them because that’s not germane to my business and it’s not germane to my work.

Managing that risk on social media means you take charge of the content you want out there.

I have clients of all different faiths and all different political persuasions. That’s the beauty of my world—it is very, very highly diverse. But I don't work in the political space where I would have to take a position, so I don’t have to. I can take a position on the military because I’m very proud and passionate about that, but I’ve created guardrails around myself, and that has allowed me to stay consistent. That's where the opportunity lies.

If the company and the leadership decide we’re going to take a position, for instance, around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I), then determine what is that company position. If that executive has a different position or sees things through a different lens, then either they don’t say anything or if they speak, they have to speak in a way that doesn’t represent the company. That gets tricky, but having those conversations is really healthy. That’s always what we advocate.

Using the DE&I example, if you have a female in your senior leadership, that female’s voice can sound a little bit different because her experience might look different. Somebody who comes from a disenfranchised group or a minority might have a different position on an issue, and there’s room for that—but let’s share our voice in a way that’s consistent with what the company values are. If they’re not aligned, if that individual doesn’t align with what the company stands for, they are not going to last. We just have to find the right language and the common language to use while still being authentic.

SM. When it comes to speaking out, does that require a different sort of communication and transparency?

LC. I think maybe a better focus is authenticity. Authenticity is often confused with transparency. The way I see it is authenticity means you show up as yourself, you represent yourself genuinely, and when you give an answer, it’s the truth as you know it, but it doesn't mean you tell me everything.

Transparency has a tone of 'Whatever you want to ask me, I'll answer.' Well, no, I'm not going to answer everything because I get to keep some things private. I’m a human being, certain aspects of my life get to remain private and sacred, and I honor that.

For some clients, they don’t want to share pictures of their family online. For another, they don’t want to write recommendations for people they work with. For others, it’s they don't want to talk about their trauma or things that they had struggled with in their lifestyle. We’re allowed to keep that.

SM. What if the alignment between your intended reputation and people’s perceptions does not match? What if you have one of those missteps, especially in a public space like social media, how do you respond?

LC. That’s what my latest book, Control the Narrative, is about, because there are a lot of reasons somebody gets into a reputation crisis. Making a mistake is certainly one of them.

I get a lot of inbound inquiries about, 'Oh, this happened to me.' But no, you didn’t accidentally have an affair with a patient or a grad student. It wasn’t an accident. But there are times where people’s reputation goes into trauma or crisis, and they didn’t do anything wrong.

When I started doing that work, that was the biggest surprise to me—I didn't think it really happened, but it does. Workplace mobbing, workplace bullying, typecasting where you can’t get past a certain perception, those are troubling, and they can cause someone’s career to stall out or even become very harmful to themselves.

What most people want but they don't ask for is a sense of control again.

Whether it’s somebody's fault or not, I always suggest a couple of best practices: first, as best as you can, separate emotion from fact. Sometimes that does require having some other people in your corner—a professional, an advisor, a mentor, somebody you trust who can help you understand: Were your feelings hurt or is this something that really has to be looked at? Let’s face it, if somebody posts a negative comment on LinkedIn and you think it’s a reputation crisis, it may just be that you got your feelings hurt, and that’s valid but then that’s a different strategy to respond. Understanding fact from emotion allows you to make clear decisions.

Second, looking at the short-term and long-term implications, is this job-specific? Is this showing a pattern? Did you say something off the top of your head because you had too much to drink and the people who know you would never believe you would say that? Maybe it’s a one-off? Or is there a pattern of behavior that this is now brought to light that’s more problematic? What are the short-term and long-term implications? Is this something that can get handled with an apology, a public apology, or a fine, or is this going to be part of a longer process to unpack and repair?

Next, ask what it is you want. Oftentimes people don’t know how to answer it. It’s, 'Well, I want it to go away from Google,' and I say, 'Well, you show me how that works,” because there’s no way.

Instead, let’s look at what it is and is it reasonable to expect it’s going to go away? One of my clients said to me the other day, 'I just want people to understand that's not me.' I said, 'Well, who are the people?' She goes, 'Everyone.' Wow, I have not had a marketing strategy in a long time that the audience was everyone. There are people we care about—our boss, our investors, our board of directors, our staff—but do we care about the opinion of the person living in their parent's basement who plays video games and looks on the Internet all day?

I’m drawing an exaggerated example, but it’s really about deciding what is it you want. What most people want but they don’t ask for is a sense of control again. If they did something wrong, they want to know that there’s a way forward to get past it. If they didn’t do something wrong, they feel powerless, and they want to know that there’s a way to get their power back.

SM. So for security professionals, the trigger for a reputational crisis could be an incident. It could be a random crime, an act of violence, or it could be something that was a major misstep that something was not addressed, something was not covered, a vulnerability was left unknown. How do you manage your reputation when the buck stops with you?

LC. If your job is to manage the inflow and outflow of information and there is a problem, the company is going to have a crisis response and your individual accountability in that crisis response is obviously important. That’s where it gets tricky, like when a cybersecurity leader was called out for being responsible for a massive breach.

Again, not panicking, separate emotion from fact, look at short-term and long-term implications, and decide what you want. There are times where it makes sense to speak up, there are times when it doesn't. There’s no universal checklist that everybody follows. Every company is different, but I will say that it’s really important for individuals to know their truth and have an opportunity to speak that truth.

Learn more about the CSO Center Leadership Series here