Branding: It's Not Just for Marketers

By Leigh Glenn

graphic of communication activities

Social work student Andre Harris is no stranger to social media. As an older millennial, he's been on various forms of it from the get-go—MySpace and chat rooms before migrating to Facebook—and has served as a social media manager for his church and organizations for which he’s volunteered. He joined Twitter in January 2009, but not until a class in macro practice, in which students had to tweet about a particular issue for a whole semester, did the power of Twitter for advocacy dawn on him.

Today, Harris, a senior at Fayetteville State University, North Carolina, heads up the Black Men in Social Work pages on Facebook and Twitter and serves as an educator and certified health worker who focuses on sickle cell disease, a genetic disorder he himself has. So, naturally, if someone were seeking an expert in either of those spaces, they might reach out to Harris, because both are part of his “brand.”

“Everyone has a brand whether they feel like they’ve developed one or not,” says Harris, adding that as part of their education, social workers learn to become self-aware, which is key to creating and honing one’s brand.

Yet social workers, who advocate on behalf of others, may neglect brand-building as a key part of their professional development, despite the importance of it, not only for themselves, but for the social work field in general.

With seven in 10 Americans using social media on a regular basis, social media channels offer viable venues for brand development. But speaking engagements, publishing and in-person opportunities, such as at conferences, also offer ways to develop oneself. And social workers who excel at branding often tap a variety of media to extend their advocacy reach.


What Is a Brand, Anyway?


“Brand” may be linked in most people’s minds with products or services sold nationally—Apple, for example, or Geico. But “brand” really comes down to “what people think and feel when they hear your name,” says Kristin Battista-Frazee, MSW, branding specialist and author of “The Pornographer̕s Daughter.” “Brand and identity are closely related, but brand is how people perceive your identity.” Identity may include your strengths and weaknesses, values and other aspects of you that become part of your brand, she says. And how you communicate these aspects of who you are is what builds your brand.

To uncover your brand, Battista-Frazee suggests writing down at least five words associated with the following: strengths, weaknesses, expertise, values, personality and passions. It’s important to write what represents you, not what you think someone else wants to hear. Then, have a friend or family member provide feedback on the list, she says.

Once you know your attributes, determine what your goals are, including the niche or niches you’re filling, says Battista-Frazee, who’s written about branding for social workers for The New Social Worker. You’re in private practice, work with adolescents and want to expand? How can you best convey the ways your attributes support parents who’ve been seeking the right therapist for their children?

Whether you̕re a new or experienced social worker, Battista-Frazee suggests having a solid LinkedIn profile and tapping LinkedIn Makeover for help. You can also gain more knowledge—and spread the word—by finding your “tribe,” she says. She’s a partner of #MacroSW where Twitter chats take place every Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern. Social workers connect there to share ideas and opportunities and talk about current topics.


'A Medical Social Worker with the Soul of a Case Manager'


That was how a case management director at a small community hospital in Arlington, Va., described Ellen Fink-Samnick, MSW ACSW LCSW CCM CRP, years ago after Fink-Samnick had spent a frustrating eight months searching for a job near Washington, D.C., where she was moving after a decade in the New York metro area. That person, herself a transplant from California, hired Fink-Samnick the next day.

One can read into that description a who and a what—as well as a niche. It was then up to Fink-Samnick to unfold the how and the for whom. The business side of health care and increasing interdisciplinary approaches to patients had long interested her. She maintained dual tracks in both social work and case management, including conversing with nursing colleagues concerned about outcomes, quality and business aspects while also bridging the social worker and case management communities.

Part of branding can be about seeing a need and addressing it—something social workers are naturally inclined to do and have the education and training for. Says Fink-Samnick, “I witnessed too many social workers shy away from learning the ‘financial’ focus that accompanied the case-management role. Many social workers left the hospital arena or lost their jobs. I also learned a valuable lesson from watching my nursing colleagues; they were as fierce in advocating for themselves as they were in doing so for patients and families.”

That “aha” moment of understanding that social workers (and others in the field) were too often better at advocating for others before or in lieu of themselves led her to write and speak about the subject and to encourage social workers to tend to themselves—something she still does whenever she can. Branding can be thought of as part of tending one’s professional development. Indeed, given skyrocketing rates of burnout and turnover, social workers should pay much more attention to their professional goals and aspirations.

Working on those goals can dovetail with branding. Fink-Samnick gained experience as a field instructor at Hunter, New York University and Columbia, so after her move and given her professional growth, she was sought out by former students for clinical supervision and also mentored social workers and nurses in case management. That led to speaking opportunities at local and state conferences about case-management practice.

After succeeding in this way, Fink-Samnick felt herself at the peak of her development. Where could she go? Over coffee, a friend asked her, What did she want to be when she grew up? On a napkin, she drew EFS Supervision, and underneath, arrows leading to teaching, clinical supervision for social work clinical licensure candidates, training and professional speaking, and consulting. She says she thought the exercise was a “tease” and wondered how she could ever evolve each of those into a career that would pay the bills. She pondered that for a year before taking the leap. Developing those four tracks took another five years—blending her social work roots and identity with newer work in case management.

Fink-Samnick started as a field liaison at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., responded to a request for proposals to NASW-Virginia for trainers in their clinical supervision training certification program, and continued to write, work on editorial boards and then was elected to be a commissioner for the Commission for Case Management Certification.

For her, branding is about “keeping up with the industry.” Her efforts—building her reputation across disciplines—began long before the Internet expanded one̕s ability to reach others. Since then, she has been active on LinkedIn, with her Ellen’s Ethical Lens page, which she adds to every morning, and Twitter, where she posts what’s most relevant from what she’s included on LinkedIn. She launched her website, efssupervisionstrategies.com, in 2009. Only more recently has she added a blog to that site. And she uses Facebook for announcements, while also moderating professional groups on the platform.

Through the career upgrades, Fink-Samnick has been conscious of her professional face, which also plays into branding. To that end, she came up with a tagline, “Professional speaker, author, consultant empowering healthcare’s interprofessional workforce.” Fink-Samnick had been accustomed to empowering clients and families, but over time became more aware of how much those involved in patient and client care needed empowering themselves—and that shifted her focus and changed her goals.

“I’ve found many colleagues across the health and human services disciplines do not excel at or prioritize” those kinds of efforts, she says. “They hold to a more traditional heritage of the workforce as ‘helpers,’ who have little interest in the business end of practice or the marketing of that practice. I take a different stance: The times have shifted, and every health care professional, particularly social workers, must promote the value they bring to the equation. Nobody will do it for you!” Fink-Samnick takes this approach with everything she does, whether supervisory partnerships, how she structures classroom or presentation objectives, even the messages she hopes people will receive from the publications she writes.


What Grabs You?


Your passions can carry you a long way toward branding and you may not even be aware of your interests as a factor because you naturally want to share what piques your interest. That’s how it was for Sean Erreger, LCSW, MSW.

“Branding was not something I initially was consciously thinking about,” he says. He wanted to share information through a blog with other social workers about new aspects of the work with a perspective unique to him, which started from a base of curiosity and the acknowledgement that social workers “didn’t have all the answers.” From there, he listened to other social workers with a keen interest in their needs and that led to a focus on technology—an area where many social workers feel stuck.

Erreger enjoys blogging and tweeting the most. The blog provides a deeper dive into subjects and Twitter gives him more immediate interactions in a conversational style—including tweeting from events he’s attending and following hashtags from other events the people he follows are attending.

Nearly 13,000 people subscribe to his blog, which is housed at his website, stuckonsocialwork.com, and more than 12,000 follow him on Twitter. “My audience has grown as a result of my varied interests in technology,” he says. “Not only how it affects social work practice, but society in general.” Erreger admits that not everyone likes his variety when it comes to tech-related topics, so he tries to stay focused on health IT, but doesn’t think he’s lost too many people when he chooses a wider angle.

Erreger says branding goes beyond the individual social worker and gives voice to the profession itself. “Telling your ‘story’ on a website or social media platform can elevate the profession. We are a diverse profession and it’s (good) to share how we ‘do business’ and what we are passionate about,” he says.

A minimal investment in branding might include a website, a brief blog and a Facebook page to share interests, Erreger says. Developing a logo and sharing your story, he adds, may help differentiate you from other therapists when someone is choosing the person they’d like to work with, so they can find you via online search. Likewise, if you’re affiliated with an agency or nonprofit, someone might look you up before deciding to donate, Erreger says.

Every social worker needs to be conscious of ethical pitfalls. NASW’s most recent revisions to its Code of Ethics is a good place to start for principles regarding social workers and technology. When it comes to social media specifically, both Fink-Samnick and Erreger emphasize an ethical approach, given the delicate patient/client relationships social workers develop and the need to set clear boundaries because of potential interactions on social media. In fact, Erreger includes a page on his site that covers his social media policy.

Finding the right balance between sharing too little and coming across as wooden and sharing too much is something anyone working on branding needs to confront. Battista-Frazee suggests that how much personal information a social worker shares depends on comfort level and context. “You have to use your best judgment based on your goals and target audience,” she says. “In the example of building a private practice, it would probably not be a good idea to share your childhood trauma. However, if you are advocating for a personal cause, stories can be powerful. Authenticity is important in developing a personal brand and people do want to relate to you on a human level.” She faced that decision when writing her memoir and says, “I just chose to embrace it and incorporate it in appropriate ways into how I present myself.”


Branding for Social Work Itself


Even if you are not interested in branding for professional development, every social worker can harness their competencies and expertise to strengthen the brand of the profession. This can include advocating for political issues, especially when it comes to providing accurate and credible information, says Erreger.

That’s something Harris does when he sees misinformation about sickle cell disease—corrects it. He’s gotten some flak for the exclusiveness of his audience for the Black Men in Social Work Facebook page. Harris counters that it’s OK, when you belong to a marginalized group, to have a group of your own belonging. He is concerned about the number of black men who don’t seek therapy or medical care because there are too few practitioners who look like them. In social work classes, most of his classmates have been women. And when he’s attended social work–related events, the men have tended to be white.

The page is meant to boost the standing of social work among black men and boys, for whom career choices are often narrowly presented. Among all social media channels linked to the page, there are perhaps a thousand members, including professors, students and social workers, who share information about education, training and work opportunities as well as possibilities for research collaboration.

Offline, a solid sense of self and speaking with enthusiasm about your passion will serve you well. Harris, who was a health equity fellow this past summer at the Foundation for Sickle Cell Disease Research, doesn’t recommend developing a “quote-unquote ‘elevator speech,’” which, to him, feels rigid. Instead, he says to know what gets you excited and talk about that in person. Make business cards, he adds, which can open the door to conversations.

And don’t become too attached to your brand. “That word ‘brand’ sounds so constrictive,” says Harris. “For me, sickle cell is my main brand, but I am also an advocate for rare diseases, men’s health and male sexual assault survivors—and I talk about those with equal passion.”