A communications and journalism professor helps students know how to upgrade their online personas and show their best professional self (not selfie).
Associate Professor of Communication and Journalism, Missouri Western State University
PhD in Health Communication, Research Methods, Listening Research; MS in Communication; BS in Public Relations
America loves a good makeover. We cannot get enough of watching a piece of the world transform from so-so to superlative. Houses, wardrobes, physiques, relationships. There is nothing like the “big reveal” at the end to make our hearts sing.
For Dr. Christopher Bond, associate professor of communication and journalism at Missouri Western State University, some of the most powerful makeovers are not physical but digital, and their impact can last a lifetime. That is why he weaves a “social media makeover” into the course requirements for his Intro to Public Relations class. Personal branding is just as important as a company’s brand, and “an individual’s social media posts are large part of their overall brand,” says Bond. “Students learn the importance of branding in this assignment and how to constantly reevaluate it.”
Case in point: “One of my students who had a reputation as a party animal had a moment of clarity his senior year,” says Bond. “He realized, after undergoing a social media makeover in my class, that it was time to get serious.”
That student landed an excellent job after he graduated. “I was with him when he got the call about it,” Bond recalls. The company’s one request: That he not post in social media about the new job because the firm was still hiring. “It really showed how important social media has become at every stage of the hiring process,” he says.
Beyond clearing out the party pictures from his Facebook profile, here is how this student and others have used Bond’s lesson plan to build a positive, compelling, and professional personal brand.
Challenge: Helping students post appropriately
“Students—and most social media users—are impulsive,” says Bond. “They are accustomed to the instant gratification they get from posting in real time from Snapchat or Instagram.” He recalls a graduate who friended him on social media and posted beach pictures of herself. “They weren’t inappropriate, but they probably weren’t the best expression of a personal brand for a young person beginning a career,” Bond says. “Her brand may have been tarnished a little if someone at her company saw the pictures.”
As the first real tech-savvy generation, today’s college students face some unique challenges that older generations do not. They may have used smartphones before they could tie their shoes. Many created Facebook accounts (with fake ages) while still in middle school—sometimes with the blessing of their parents, and other times under a fake name. In sum, they have had more than a decade to build a persona (or two) on a variety of social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat.
Difficulties arise when individuals overshare on their online personas, present personal details on a professional profile, or simply fail to consider the implications of every digital communication—post, photo, like, and comment.
Innovation: Facilitating a social media self-makeover
“The social media makeover is intended to help students realize that they have a brand, and that [their] brand is going to stay with them lifelong,” says Bond. “I don’t know whether I can really call the concept original,” he allows. “There are a lot of makeover shows on television; I guess that was the inspiration for the assignment … [it] is great way to introduce the importance of both individual and corporate branding.”
Bond began developing the social media makeover concept in 2013, borrowing from multiple sources, and he now uses it in several different classes, including Intro to Public Relations. “An understanding of branding can help students learn to be deliberate about their own brands and how they want to be represented both personally and professionally,” he says.
Course: COM 215 Introduction to Public Relations
Frequency: Two 80-minute meetings per week
Class size: 25
In his words: This sophomore-level course teaches the theory and practical application of public relations, a field that has changed radically in the last 10 years because of social media. In short, students gain an overall understanding of what a public relations practitioner does by participating in many applied assignments and learning about the many diverse and exciting opportunities the public relations field can offer.
COM 215 Introduction to Public RelationsSee materials
Lesson: Outline the steps to a successful social media makeover
The social media makeover is a 120-point, weeks-long process of self-evaluation intended to help the student build a personal brand online. Starting one third of the way into the semester, the exercise focuses on an examination of what should and should not be included in the public social media profiles of individuals seeking to build a professional career. Bond’s process can help any student understand how to present themselves better, using positive personal branding and avoiding the online pitfalls that can undermine their career prospects.
Teach an understanding of branding
For companies, branding helps establish loyalty and differentiation, showing consumers why they are the “best” choice for a particular “service, product, or solution.” Bond’s syllabus describes how this assignment relates to self-branding and social media:
Effective branding is ever more necessary in today’s market with the increase of social media use. A company’s branding efforts need constant analysis and [are] coordinated through public relations. Students will analyze their personal brand and will analyze the need for change.
Give students a wake-up call
Successful makeovers begin with a recognition of the need for change, and this exercise is no exception. “Any employer—or any blind date—is going to look you up on social media,” Bond tells students. “Students already know this from a personal, relational perspective but may not have experienced this in the context of employment,” he adds. “They need to be alert to the fact that an employer will look them up and will see everything, including the Facebook party pictures they posted impulsively.”
At the introduction of the assignment and lecture on branding, Bond asks students to list five words that describe themselves: personal attributes, activities they are involved in, and, in some cases, side businesses—what have now become known as “side hustles”—they may operate. Students will later use this list to examine whether or not their self-perceptions are accurately reflected in their online personas and posts.
Introduce the investigative process
The class discusses identity and perception, while examining the public profiles of various individuals, small businesses, and large corporations. “Individuals or even large corporations have different brands that evolve over time,” Bond explains. “A very recent example of an evolving brand would be IHOP changing to IHOB: International House of Burgers. The verdict is still out, whether this new brand will hinder business.”
Bond explains that “brands are formed and are ever changing by several variables and are communicated via face-to-face and social media interactions.” The makeover exercise demonstrates to students that they are constantly communicating their brands, whether they intend to or not.
Some of the profiles students examine belong to people they know—including fellow students and Bond himself, via his own Facebook profile; others belong to strangers. Bond emphasizes that the students have no obligation to friend or like other individuals whose profiles they study or to “like” anything they see. “Nor are they required to open their own profiles or pages to the class unless they are already public,” Bond says. “No student is required to share or like or accept friend requests unless they feel comfortable in doing so.”
“We look at each profile and I ask the students what, in a few words, it says about the person and their brand,” Bond says. “Most students get it; a number of them have completely overhauled their social media presence after looking at themselves this way.”
Begin the self-analysis segment
Ultimately, the students pair off to analyze their own and each other’s social media profiles and online brands, including those used for personal and professional communications. After an intensive interview that uncovers both professional and personal attributes of one another as well as social media preferences and uses, each student provides 3 to 5 branding words or phrases that describe the other. Then each writes a one-sentence branding statement for themselves and for the other student, for comparison.
“Instagram and Snapchat are the main platforms for college-age people,” Bond says. Twitter has seen a resurgence recently, he observes, while Facebook has begun to fade among college students. “We [also] spend a good bit of time looking at LinkedIn in class,” he stresses. “It’s all about the professional side. People are getting hired off LinkedIn. In my classes, typically only about 25% of students even have LinkedIn profiles. It takes a lot more thought and effort to build a LinkedIn profile than it does to get started on Facebook or Instagram. But it’s very important for branding and for future employment.”
After students take a week to compile their interview data and share branding phrases and statements, the next part of the assignment directs them to a current online branding quiz that assesses their brand positioning statements.
Bond says that these quizzes really help students “understand what type of leader and employee their brand is best suited to, sometimes even the type of job.”
Support the makeover itself
In part, the exercise forces students to see the image of themselves that social media conveys. If they look in this foggy mirror and do not see their true selves, they may be inspired to do more than “clean up” their current profiles. Some, says Bond, develop more mature professional personas, both online and off.
Once students learn to recognize the impressions their posts convey, Bond helps them become more intentional and consistent in using social media to craft their brands. In short, maintenance is key: Like a fit body or a refinished floor, a personal brand needs to be maintained, or it can deteriorate quickly. “Brands need to be reevaluated constantly to adapt to changes in corporate America … if you want a career change, change your brand!” Bond says.
Assess the big reveal
At the end of the semester, each student is graded on both a paper analysis and a brief presentation relating their self-analysis and social media makeover, including the “before” and “after” views. This final exercise is worth about half the credits for the social media makeover, which generally accounts for about 15% of the grade for the Introduction to PR course.
One of Bond’s observations has been that some students do not take their peers’ feedback and recommendations seriously in assessing their own brands. Those who fall into this category have to explain why that is, says Bond. Thankfully, though, “most students make significant changes,” he asserts.
Oddly enough, Bond has found that some of his students are not on social media at all. “Those students intrigue me on many levels,” he says. “It’s a really interesting choice. We talk about the positives and negatives of it from a branding perspective.” Bond says there is a statement in the assignment catered to students who do not have social media accounts, or who just have one that is never used. “There are always one or two students in each class,” Bond says. “The reasons are varied, from Internet access to privacy to many other reasons.”
Bond says these students must analyze their brand in the absence of social media and understand how their brand is currently affected and will be affected professionally. “Some nonuser students will create a profile at the end of the semester and discuss the potential,” Bond says. “Some still oppose the usage and will not budge.”
Bond credits one student’s online rebranding with paving the way for her eventual success in multilevel product sales and marketing. “When she took my class, she was unclear of her brand,” he says. “But she built a whole new online brand as a serious businesswoman that was present all along. The last I heard, she had 92 people working under her!”
An important practical outcome of the class, Bond feels, has been students’ recognition of the importance of having a professional presence on social media, especially LinkedIn. Many graduates have told Bond that LinkedIn continues to be a great source for job searches and professional networking, both during college and after graduation.
“This [branding assignment] made me realize I need to stay in the PR field and hopefully work in the sports industry.”
“The social media assignment was the most helpful and most fun of the semester. I now have a blog for my jewelry business and [am] talking to larger buyer.”
“I do social media all the time for two students groups on campus and my own accounts too. The assignment on branding made me think more before I post about who I am representing.”