Defend Your Personal Brand. Barbara Boxer shows how.

by cv harquail on June 19, 2009

What can we learn from Senator Barbara Boxer and her interaction with Brigadier General Michael Walsh?

1. Defend your personal brand.
2. Ask to be treated in a way that reflects who you are, what you have accomplished, and what you stand for.
3. To do anything else is to allow your personal brand to degrade.

200906191332.jpgBoxer and Walsh are said to have “clashed” during a hearing on Tuesday about the New Orleans Flood Protection and the work of the Army Corps of Engineers.

As described by Patricia Murphy, a columnist at Politics Daily:

During a terse exchange, as Boxer pressed Walsh on why the levees in New Orleans are still not repaired nearly four years after Hurricane Katrina, she said to Walsh:

“Could you say ‘senator’ instead of ‘ma’am? It’s just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title. I’d appreciate it.”

The general’s response? “Yes, Senator.”

Why should she care? Because titles help to maintain personal brands.

Both Senator Boxer and General Walsh have reputations that they have earned over their years of public service. Both also have titles, also known as honorifics. These titles indicate to everyone the place that each of them has earned within their specific ‘industries’. For example, Boxer is not only a senator but also the Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

For the Senator and the General, their titles are part of their personal brands.

Both parties deserve to be called not only by the titles they have earned, but also by the titles they prefer. Beyond being simply polite and respectful, the use of the appropriate honorific has a purpose for personal branding. The honorifics are an important shorthand that allows all participants to keep in mind the status and reputations of the parties involved. And, where one person’s formal status is higher than another’s, using the honorifics helps to organize the rules of engagement.

Was Boxer “rude”?

Boxer asked for the appropriate honorific (title) to be used. The general complied. Boxer used his title to refer to him, he (ultimately) used her title to refer to her.

After looking at the video of the interaction itself and also of the entire meeting, it seemed like a reasonable request. Boxer was direct, straightforward, specific, and NOT bitchy.

So, why is it that when asked to evaluate Boxer’s request that her formal title be used, over 75% of respondents indicated that they thought Boxer’s request was “rude”?

To answer that question, let’s take our own quick poll:

Why did some people think Boxer’s request was rude?

(1) They think personal brand and reputation are not important.

(2) They think that earned status is not important.

(3) They think that a woman’s personal brand is less important than a man’s personal brand.

if you didn’t choose option 3, go read the nearly 2,000 comments on Patricia Murphy’s post.

200906191331.jpgMaintaining personal brands is harder for some groups of individuals than for others.

Any time individuals are in a subordinate social position, whether they are the junior partner to the senior partner, the salesperson to the buyer, the woman to the man, or the minority group member to the majority group member, their personal brands are more vulnerable.

One of the perquisites of power is the ability to define the situation, and one of the easiest ways to define a situation to one’s own advantage is to diminish, disrespect or disregard the personal brand or reputation of less powerful parties. Thus,

Defending your personal brand is more important for women than it is for men.

As contrasted with men’s personal brands:

  • Women’s personal brands are more likely to be intentionally disregarded.
  • Women’s personal brands are more likely to be unintentionally disregarded.

And, as General Walsh’s efforts demonstrate,

  • Women’s personal brands are more likely to be disrespected even by those who intend to respect women’s brands.

Personal brands, gender and race

Promoted by a conversation with Terrill Welch, a leadership coach and consultant, I’ve been doing some research on issues related to personal branding and women. (Despite my many reservations about personal branding as an implicitly politicized approach to finding personal voice and crafting personal reputation, I agree enough with the true intent of personal branding.)

I’ll write more about personal branding, gender and race in the next several weeks, so in the meantime keep your eyes open for situations where personal branding works differently for women than for men.

You’ll be surprised by what you see, and not always in a good way.

Take it from me, Ms. Professor Dr. Harquail.


Anonymous June 20, 2009 at 12:47 am

In the military you call a superior officer Sir or Mamam. By valling her mamam he was showing respect.

Eye on the Law June 20, 2009 at 5:08 pm

Vote on whether or not Senator Boxer was rude to the General:

Mark Montoya June 22, 2009 at 6:55 pm

I don’t think the issue is so much Boxer being rude or not, and I think this article is hyper-sensitive to gender roles. I’ve read through the comments and I suggest do not reach the conclusions, imperically or experientially.

For example, how are these suppositions supported:

# Women’s personal brands are more likely to be intentionally disregarded.
# Women’s personal brands are more likely to be unintentionally disregarded.

Brands, whether corporate or personal, require a consistency of message: having a specialization and speaking to an audience that wants/needs (whether known or not) is the fundamental goal of all brands- that Senator Boxer wants consistency of her brand name shows that she understands this. In Boxer’s case she needs all the name recognition that she can get as exposure equals votes!

It is an interesting thought to look at gender role dynamics in personal branding, but without more data jumping to conclusions won’t ‘prove’ anything.

Mark Montoya

Vinny June 23, 2009 at 10:43 pm

If your actions are dignified and worthy of respect you will not have to defend your “personal brand”, people will bestow it upon you willingly.

CV Harquail June 24, 2009 at 7:00 pm

Vinny, thanks for your comment. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that people would treat us as we ask them too, and that dignified behavior would engender dignified treatment by others, but alas this isn’t true. There are many situations where individuals and entire groups of people acted with dignity and in ways worthy of others’ respect, who were treated not only disrespectfully but even worse. Just think back to how non-violent civil rights protesters were treated… they sat at lunch counters being peaceful and respectful, and how were they treated in return? In ways that had nothing to do with how they comported themselves.
In reality, people don’t ‘bestow’ upon us the treatment we ask them to. Disrespectful people are treated with respect, honest people are treated as untrustworthy. We are able to encourage or trigger certain kinds of treatment from others, but the link is not direct, automatic or absolute. So, while we can do our best to project the brand, image or reputation we desire, we can’t assume that others will bestow this upon us. Even if we ‘work’ for it, others still have the opportunity to respond however they like. That’s one of the inherent challenges of reputation management and brand management — you can control what you put out, you can influence how it’s received, but you can’t depend on how it will be responded to.

CV Harquail June 24, 2009 at 7:16 pm

I appreciate your skepticism about how gender and reputation interact. The issue here is the relationship between gender and power, and the relationship between gender and stereotypic expectations.

As I write above: ” Any time individuals are in a subordinate social position … their personal brands are more vulnerable.

One of the perquisites of power is the ability to define the situation, and one of the easiest ways to define a situation to one’s own advantage is to diminish, disrespect or disregard the personal brand or reputation of less powerful parties.”

Just as companies have less power than consumers in determining how their brand is defined in those customers’ eyes, in a sexist environment, women have less power over how they are perceived than men do, because by definition in a sexist environment women are perceived and treated in ways that diminish them regardless of how they act.

Also, in sexist environments, women are expected to behave in stereotypic ways, including deferring to men, not sticking up for themselves, not speaking out, not wielding power visibly, and so on. When women do this either as part of their brands (e.g., a brand as a strong, outspoken woman) or to promote their brands (e.g., speaking out so that you know I’m creative), they are punished.

Situations are more or less sexist, and they are sexist in different ways. There are situations where well-meaning people apply a type of sexism that is not intended to diminish women, yet diminishes them nonetheless. In particular, this happens in environments characterized by “benevolent sexism”. I suspect that General Walsh does not believe himself to be sexist, yet unintentionally applies a form of sexist expectations of women in power that either led him to behave in a way that diminished Boxer AND/OR led Boxer to interpret his behavior as diminishing. She had reason to be concerned, though we can’t know what Walsh intended.

Women’s brands can be disregarded when they don’t ‘fit’ the stereotypes (however positive) of women in these envoroments. For example, it may be considered ‘good’ for a women to be nurutring, and if her personal brand isn’t about nurturing, she may find it (and her) disregarded.

The dynamics are complex. They are also well documented empirically– so I’m speaking from knowledge of a base of scientific research, not off the top of my head. Although I’m not citing studies chapter and verse here …. I can, if you don’t trust my brand as a management scholar < grin >

Nancy Dailey June 26, 2009 at 7:39 am

Dr. CV,
Articles like this help readers (even converts like me) to make the invisible visible. Bias, prejudice, just bad habit is hard to see in yourself. Even the most well-intentioned can’t catch all of the socially ingrained stereotypes without continuous reflection. So thanks for raising the issue!! This would make a great dissertation topic!!

It is very interesting that the notion of ‘personal brand’ for women seems to hit a chord. My experience has been that unless people are struggling (laid off, etc.) the idea of having a personal brand is really off the radar. In March, I spoke to the American Women in Radio & Television national conference and for most participants it was a brand new idea. As we move further into the ‘gig’ economy folks will learn the importance of personal branding.

Jennydrea August 19, 2009 at 2:26 am

I have to admit Branding is everything in business, but without any means of strategic marketing be it online or offline, your brand still would draw less customers.
Many sites help and guide an individual or startup company on how to create your own unique brand that stands out from the rest. In less than a month, I assure you, you will start to experience great amount of success on your brand or business with the efforts you put in. It will be full of insight, information and secret strategies to launch into unfamiliar territory.

Philip August 28, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Nice article, Ma’am.

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