Paula Franklin and Mercedes Bailey on Building a Compelling Personal Brand

8 min readAug 13, 2020


A simple headshot (a more difficult task than it seems), a bio at hand and an authentic story are a great starting point to building your brand according to this week’s member spotlight. They’ve put clients on illustrious lists like the Time 100’s most influential people and 100 Greatest Places lists. They have trailblazed the travel PR scene and made a notorious niche conservation industry more mainstream in sub-Saharan Africa. So who are the dynamic duo behind the FranklyBailey brand development powerhouse? This week we caught up with Room Member Paula Franklin, a confessed New Yorker and Mercedes Bailey from the UK but an African at heart on building a strong personal brand. With a combined experience of over 20+ years cultivating brands and shining a light on lesser told stories, their insights were invaluable, here’s what they had to say.

Your work speaks for itself, you have put clients on coveted lists like the Time 100’s Most Influential People and Fast Company. Tell us a bit more about the faces behind FranklyBailey and how you met?

Mercedes Bailey & Paula Franklin

Paula Franklin

“I’d like to go way back. I majored in journalism in college and started at the German Tourist Board marketing Germany to Americans. I discovered this incredible world of Travel PR that I never knew existed — I was hooked. I worked at few agencies representing everything from countries to airlines and large hotel chains before 2007 when I was randomly assigned to an Africa focused desk at a PR Agency. I went on a press trip to Cape Town in South Africa, the Garden route and Pinda for clients at the time — again I was hooked. Ever since then, I have tried to focus the work I do on Africa and conservation.

After 12 years in different PR firms in New York, I decided to work on my own as a consultant. I discovered that African tourism had a few key players that once you knew would connect you to everyone else. A mutual friend recommended me to Mercedes to work for Asilia. So Mercedes hired me for PR. That’s the short version of how we met.”

Mercedes Bailey

“I grew up, Oxford, I majored in European languages and then left the UK as quickly as I could to end up on a tiny Island in Northern Mozambique originally working for an NGO. I taught English and hospitality training because a lodge was opening then, this was about 15 years ago. I ended up running the lodge and always had this vision about going into not-for-profit and aide work, but my experience in Mozambique made me realise that the private sector could be an Incredible driver for good.” Mercedes never really left Africa after that, following a brief 18-month marketing stint in London, she returned to set up Safari camps in Botswana, Mozambique and Tanzania before settling down in Asilia as the head of branding and communications. “Another company that uses its commercial existence for good,” says Mercedes about Asilia. “That’s when I met Paula and as she said the rest is history.”

A bond forged through the flames.

Four years after they met, Paula was working at Empowers Africa. She was commissioned PR project alongside Mercedes because a Chinese billionaire who had committed $1.5billion to conservation had just pledged a further $20 million to big cats worldwide. The beneficiaries Panthera — a big cat initiative wanted to make the announcement at the IUCN conference with an airtight timeline of just 3 weeks. They secured the UK telegraph, Town & Country magazine, Worth Magazine and Bloomberg — a significant amount of global press in that short window. “It really was a baptism by fire, and from this project we realised were good at it,” says Mercedes. After pulling off that feat in such a short time, they realised they worked well together, and FranklyBailey was born a year later.

Our theme this week is building your brand, a term used loosely to describe a few curated Instagram posts and one thought leadership article. Why is personal brand building important?

Becoming the go-to person in your line of work

Paula shares how because of the brand they have built to the relevant audiences, they are referred to as Subject matter experts by editors of global publications on a topic revolving around Africa. “I would have editors reaching out about clients who aren’t ours reaching out because they’re thinking ‘it’s Africa, let’s call FranklyBailey for that story’. I think it’s really important for our business to be the ‘’go tos’’ for these editors.”

What would you say are the guiding principles behind building a personal brand?

Creating something that goes beyond your current job title

Mercedes says “I think personal branding is creating something that goes beyond your current job title. For instance, so many more people know Fred Swaniker as the man rather than his current job title. That would be my advice to anybody that is starting out, take a position and start to build a brand separate to what your job title is — it will not be the same forever. So it’s really important.

Look for opportunities to cement what you want your brand to be

“Like Paula mentioned, we talk to people that aren’t just our direct clients to position ourselves as experts on Africa because that’s our brand right now.” Mercedes shared when explaining how you should find your arena to establish your story and knowledge base.

Genuinely invest in relationships.

A mantra we have at the Room is building authentic relationships, and here Paula refers to how these relationships have played a role in their experience. “For FranklyBailey, going back to the Times 100 and Fast Company lists, the relationships built over time made them possible. When we approach an editor with incredible stories, we are already a shoo-in because of trust built from past stories.” She also mentions how she checks in every few months with a genuine interest in what these contacts are doing to nurture these relationships.

Don’t underestimate basic housekeeping — A bio and a headshot.

“You’d be surprised how bad people are at not having the basics” Laments Mercedes. “Have your bio written down. As you think of your personal branding come back to it each year because important elements could have evolved. It’s alarming how many people don’t have their bio on hand.” Mercedes continues “The other basic piece of housekeeping is profile pictures. One of our clients is a prime example of this! It’s difficult to get a good photo of him.” So if you’re reading this and you don’t have a bio and headshot, you have two to-do items on your weekend list.

Be open to sharing your failures.

One of their favourite themes during this COVID period has been about failures, referring to a popular British podcast called How to fail where celebrities talk about three times they failed in their lifetime. “One of our clients is really good at this; he often talks about when he couldn’t afford to pay for dinner, sleeping on sofas and making sure he had dinner with a donor every night during travels to make sure he could get dinner on the road. The story really stuck with me” recalls Mercedes. People connect with real people, and everyone can relate to failure. Don’t be afraid to talk about your failures; it makes you human.

Creating on your platform

While the cherry on top would be a Fast Company or TIMES, feature Paula and Mercedes’ advice starting with your platform. While the goal is to write “Op-eds” for the NY times, you have to start from somewhere through either a blog or a podcast “If you have a message put it out there, it’s much easier to do now than 20 years ago.”

Be authentic

They also share how people should create a balanced view of their personal and professional personas to come across as more genuine in their portrayal.

What are pitfalls or areas to be careful about when building your brand?

Speak on what you know

“I think this is COVID related, but with so much content and virtual conferences out there, there are opportunities to be in panels. People need to be a bit cautious that they know what they’re getting themselves into and know what you’re talking about. I have definitely seen a few where people were just trying to fill panels, and it ended poorly.” Paula advises, as something that could harm your personal brand if not gotten right.

Who is someone you believe has positioned themselves well and used their brand for impact?

Dr Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, a primatologist who was recently recognised by the Tusk trust by Prince William for her work, is someone whose brand I like. She created Gorilla conservation Coffee, by working with Coffee farmers to make sure they are getting a fair wage for their coffee while teaching them to co-exist with Gorillas. She has used her personal brand to make sure the Gorillas are not poached while making sure that others are making money and learn to co-exist with them. “These are the kind of brands that need to be elevated even more,” says Paula.

We shared recently in one of our newsletters — the PIE model — based on Performance — 10% (your work) Image 30% and Exposure 60% is essential for career success. As people who specialise in image and exposure, what would be your advice to achieve that balance?

Top Leaders Hire communication specialists.

“We’re not trying to get more business by saying this, but my advice would be to hire a communications specialist. I cannot tell you how many clients over the years that think they understand how journalists work.” CEOs at the very top of their game are susceptible to this. So many opportunities have been lost simply because of this assumption and write the wrong stories. “Even if you’re in the not for profit sector, try and get someone to do pro bono work or a small retainer. The difference that a more professional newsletter or social media image can make to donations, sales inquiries and getting coverage in major publications is significant.” Mercedes also emphasised that this is due to the profound experiences and relationships built over time to create these opportunities. “People look at publications and wonder why the same people are quoted every time. It’s because they have good PR people and they listen to them.”

Personal brand building is a bit different, without physical interactions during this time. What advice would you give to our readers from your reflections on how to keep building during this time?

People need to adapt and pivot — Be ready for the changes, industries, including the media space will change by 2021. For instance, we have had to be even more intentional to share the kind of content people want to consume and share that. Intentionally adapt and pivot in your space.

Audit all the platforms you’re on both professional and personal — Absorb new information to make sure you’re still growing on a personal level e.g. switching the podcasts you listen to. Though it’s a crowded room, if you have a message get it out there.

Explore coaching — If you invest time in teaching others, it could be rewarding to you and your brand.

What are you looking forward to the most about post COVID?

Disruption in the travel and conservation space — traditional models, are falling away. “The world moving more online will level the playing field, which will be to Africa’s advantage.”




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