established 2008

Media Training

How To Create Your Media Persona

by Joreth © copyright 2009

Even when people intentionally put themselves in the media's eye, the repurcussions of media attention can come as a big surprise to people after the fact. The thought of public attention is sometimes very different than the reality of public attention. So it is very important to craft your Media Persona carefully, even if you believe you have "nothing to hide" and are "completely out".

A Media Persona is not necessarily about hiding things, and it's not about creating a fake character. It's about utilizing those aspects of yourself and your personality to best get your message across and about how to allow yourself to have a "private sphere" that includes those areas of your life that are out of the public eye. Everyone's "private sphere" is a different size and includes different elements, so it is up to you to choose your own, and this article will give you guidelines on how to do that.

Choosing A Name

The first thing you will need to do is decide what name to use in your media experiences. Each option has pros and cons and it is up to you to decide which option best fits your life and your goals.

Your Online Name - Many of us have an online persona to protect ourselves from the big, scary, internet world interfering with our real world. This is a completely valid choice to make. Sometimes people have jobs or family that they do not wish to see certain aspects of their lives because it's none of their business. And that's perfectly acceptable. Some of us already have an outspoken internet presence, so using our online names can connect the audience of the media event to an already-established body of writings about our thoughts. For example, Tacit may choose to use his online name in an article because he is already well-known on the internet with his More Than Two website (formerly known as his Xeromag site) and his LiveJournal under that username, so the article (and its readers) can connect the interviewee Tacit with the famous Xeromag Tacit.

The drawbacks of using an internet name is in the perception of that name and difficulty translating the text of the name into conversation. First, our usernames might not have been chosen with a polyactivist future in mind, so you want to consider the impact Moonchild1958 or ImaBadGrrl might have on your credibility. You also don't want to give the wrong impression with a tongue-in-cheek or humorous username that could hurt your position that polyamory is about loving, consenting relationships with names like EvilOverLord1975 and MysogynyPete. Second, how easy is your online name to pronounce or spell? You do not want a television interviewer to stumble over Annwvynsidhe or Durthacht when you have a predemoninently English audience or have it misspelled in print.

Other Psuedonyms - These include names we've given ourselves as the identity we've grown into, or a name chosen specifically for the purpose of this media event, or any other reason. The benefit to using a fake name is the anonymity it offers, and a "real" fake name (a name that is in common usage in your society, but it just not your own name) avoids some of the pitfalls that were discussed in the Online Names drawbacks. A "real" fake name is more credible than some of the internet usernames or other personal identity names that many people choose in the various alternative communities (SCA names, role-playing character names, fantasy names, BDSM personas, etc.) but all psuedonyms still retain that aura of secrecy, which sometimes translates into shame, and can give readers or viewers the impression that you should be ashamed or should keep your lifestyle quiet. So you need to decide which is more important, adding to your credibility or maintaining your privacy. This will be a personal choice and everyone will have their own reasons for their choices.

One additional drawback to a psuedonym of any type is when the media event uses photos, video, or audio recordings. It is very difficult to obsure the identity of someone so well that anyone who knows them would be unable to pick them out. Several years ago, a reporter went "under cover" to a poly discussion group and used a hidden camera to record the discussion. They got away with it legally because they blurred the images of the people on the recording. But their voices were not altered, their bodies were still visible, and they identified the location of the group, so anyone who knew these people in real life could identify them with less than a second of airtime. Any parent would certainly be able to recognize their child's voice, especially when given other data like the location. If you agree to allow a television crew into your house as long as you are only video taped from the back or your face is not recognizable, anyone who has been to your home will know who you are, even if you use a fake name.

So using a pseudonym as part of a media event also has to include no other identifiable factors, such as imagery, location, names of other partners, whether or not you have children, etc. If protecting your identity is important enough to trade a portion of your credibility for it, you must be vigilante to ensure that your identity isn't given away by other means, such as viewing you from the back and hearing your voice. Print media is much easier to use a psuedonym and not lose your privacy with secondary identifiers.

Choosing A Persona

When you decide to become a "spokesperson", or to represent a particular community, you need to decide in what aspect you are representing the community. In other words, what aspect of who you are is important to your message and what aspects are not? Are you telling your story from the perspective of someone with legal training? Are you representing polyamory as a member of the mental health community? Do you stand for strong families who can raise healthy children? Can you speak for the surburban professionals? In addition to "poly is good and a valid alternative to monogamy", what message do you most want to express to the media?

Polyamory is a very complex subject, so you do not want to clutter up your message with extraneous things. The idea is to get your audience to identify with you, so you will want to minimize or de-emphasize those aspects of who the "real you" is that do not directly help carry your message to your audience. Unless the media event is specifically about cross-over subcultures, you should minimize, for example, your participation in BDSM, or the SCA, or your religious preferences. Instead, you can emphasize that polyamorous people are from all walks of life. This is not a recommendation to lie about any other portion of your life. But you will want to steer the interview back towards polyamory and away from whatever topic the interviewer is trying to introduce that can better sensationalize polyamory.

A recent study of the types of people who think the HPV vaccine is risky, for example, showed that, when confronted with actual facts and statistics, people who were opposed before hearing the facts became more opposed after hearing the facts that contradicted their preconceived notions (bias assimilation). What caused people to revise their prejudices was not facts and figures, but having the messenger be someone they could relate to, someone they felt came from a similar background, or were "culturally credible". So when you create your Media Persona, you need to have your target audience in mind and de-emphasize those aspects of yourself that your target audience will not relate to in order to be considered "credible". Degrees and certifications and experiences mean nothing in a society that favors a "president I can drink a beer with".

Things to avoid (adapted from Sex Work Awareness):

How to actually choose a Media Persona:

As an example, let's take Jane. She is polyamorous and her primary goal is to emphasize that polyamory is practiced by a wide variety of people, including normals, mundanes, muggles, suburbanites ... in short, anyone you bump into, including your next door neighbor, could be polyamorous. The reason for this goal is to promote tolerance and understanding that polyamory is not a "fringe" sexual deviation, nor is it a symptom of a mental health issue, or an abusive relationship. So that is her Step 1. Step 2, Jane gets called by a local daytime talk show. The target audience is primarily stay-at-home moms with a somewhat conservative bent, but nothing too extreme, religious, or crazy. So Step 3 is for Jane to choose a flattering, but conservative casual outfit. She does not want to wear a suit or business attire because her audience is not made of business people and might therefore not relate to her. She is also not going to wear her tie-dye dress or sarong.

When she is being interviewed, she is not going to mention that she and her girlfriend gave a spanking demo at the local dungeon last weekend (even though BDSM is also practiced by a wide variety of people) because BDSM is a separate issue and will not help her relate to her target audience, but she might mention that she, her husband, and his girlfriend all made dinner together the night before, or how much her son appreciates all the extra math tutoring that her math-teacher-boyfriend has been giving him this semester. Perhaps she can relate a story of being able to go on that extra-romantic anniversary evening with her husband because her girlfriend offered to babysit as an anniversary gift, and his girlfriend and her husband chipped in for those box seats at the opera and a limo. The stay-at-home moms can appreciate having extra adults to help with chores and additional incomes or needing a special night out. As evidence, the audience erupted in applause when Nan Wise remarked, somewhat facitiously, on Montel Williams that "every woman needs a wife!".

Choosing Your Private Sphere

Again, this is not about hiding things or lying, this is about defining boundaries. Where is the public welcome into your life? Many people, for example, do not post their phone numbers or home addresses on the internet, even if they are "open" about their lifestyles. Many of us activists have partners who do not wish to participate in media events. You will need to be very clear, before you agree to any interviews, on what is up for public scrutiny and what isn't. Will you allow a camera crew into your home? Are your partners willing to be interviewed with you? If not, can you use their names? If not, can you refer to them at all? When the subject of sex comes up (because it always does), will you keep to generic, objective statements or are you willing to discuss personal details? If you have children, will they be mentioned? By name?

This often takes people by surprise when they first catch the eye of the media. Usually when people decide to go public, they often think they have nothing to hide, they're "out" to everyone, they don't have a job or family that can hurt them if they find out. And, occasionally, people will be surprised to find that they do, indeed, have some area of their life that is complicated or harmed by public attention.

One activist had a fairly visible website, was out to her family (who had met all of her partners), had pretty progressive parents, and worked for herself. She figured there was nothing to lose by going public, and everything to gain by bringing some publicity to her lifestyle. So she did a few interviews, made it into a few papers, and used her real name. Then one reporter wanted to include the biological family to show how they handled a poly family member. The reporter asked to speak to her parents. She asked her parents how they felt about that and learned that, although her family was comfortable with her being poly, they weren't so comfortable with her being a media celebrity. They viewed all the articles as an intrusion into *their* privacy, because all of *their* friends would know since this activist used her real name. They were not ashamed of her, but polyamory was not *their* lifestyle, and they did not want to be activists for the cause. They also viewed the subject matter (romantic relationships) as something to be enjoyed privately, not splashed all over the newspapers. This caused some tension between the activist and her family, and she declined the interview.

Another activist also had no reason to hide and worked in computers, freelancing. Then she started to rub elbows with some of the big movers and shakers in the computer industry, and her career started to take off. Then some of these big companies started to connect her with her activist past. It was not a deal-breaker, but it did threaten the stability of her career and, since she was focusing more and more on tech, and less and less on polyamory, she started to regret some of her former aggressiveness in activism. It was no longer who she was, although she remains unashamed of her activism activities. But turning away from poly activism became somewhat challenging as she continued to maintain an active online presence for her work and other activities, and the thought that she would ever tire of polyactivism, or that her career would lead her in a direction where her polyactivism was a deterrent, didn't occur to her at the time (or, if it did, it was dismissed as unlikely).

One polyamorous person became involved with a polyactivist without realizing his "celebrity" status at the time. By the time she found out who he was, she was already in a relationship and had already developed an emotional connection to him, so she dismissed the potential difficulties his activism could cause her. She was completely closeted and terrified to be outed, lest she lose her rather cushy, but extremely conservative, job, or be forced to have any difficult conversations with her elderly parents. So she rationalized that, as long as he never used her name in his interviews, it would never get out. She didn't count on their relationship deepening to the point where he would meet her family and possibly move to her town, live with her, and possibly meet her bosses at company social functions. So when the subject of his activism came up, she continued to insist that her secret would be safe as long as he never mentioned her in articles.

But that becomes increasingly more difficult to do when living together, particularly when the activist has a deep-seated craving for a wide and varied poly community. It is difficult to expect someone to refrain from ever mentioning the person they love and live with when specifically asked about his romantic life. It is also difficult to hear one's lover talk about how wonderful all his other partners are, but leave one's own name off the list, even if one requested it herself. It is also difficult to remain under the radar when one's partner can't help but dive into the local community, or build one if it's non-existent, who thrives on socialization & has no internal filter when talking to others. So the Private Sphere of the woman was too big for a man who required an extremely large Public Sphere, and, ultimately, the relationship suffered, then ended, in spite of their obviously deep feelings for each other.

These anecdotes are not intended to frighten people away from becoming media spokespeople or polyactivists, but they are intended to raise awareness for the very real complications that come with being a Public Persona. So make sure you think about all the areas of your life, your partners, your family, your work, and how being public about polyamory can affect them. Decide which of those areas you want to insulate, and create your Public Persona with that as a starting point. Choose your name, choose the facets of your personality, choose your goals for your publicity, and choose what areas of your life should remain private, and out of those choices, your Public Personal will form. This will morph and evolve over time, but just like our relationships, this is something you should consciously define, not just take the default approach and dive in and see what happens.

© PMA 2008