Generosity lies at the heart of Aliza Licht’s debut career guide, Leave Your Mark: Land Your Dream Job, Kill It In Your Career, and Rock Social Media—perhaps a surprising theme to emerge from a book that details the ins and outs of the fashion industry. But it appears over and over again as Licht, the senior vice president of communications for Donna Karan International, guides the reader through her own triumphs and mistakes and delivers on her title’s promise.
Even for her Twitter alter-ego DKNY PR Girl (@dkny), which has attracted half a million followers since she launched the handle in 2009, generosity is key. She allows her followers into her world and fully engages with them by hosting Twitter parties and being available to young people who seek her advice.
The book, she writes in the introduction, grew out of her desire to mentor everyone who needed it (See? More generosity). But this isn’t the published equivalent of a kumbaya campfire circle. To achieve your goals, you’re going to have to do the work and get your hands dirty—but with a Twitter account and a copy of Licht’s book, you don’t have to do it alone.
The Rumpus: What was it like to make the jump from writing for Twitter and Tumblr to writing a full-length book?
Aliza Licht: In my junior summer I took a long form creative writing class at a summer program and I really enjoyed it. What I learned there is a style of writing they called stream of consciousness, where you can just brain dump. I’ve always loved that technique of writing where you don’t think it through, you don’t think of a title, you just kind of write. Even though I hadn’t done it in a long time, it was very easy for me to jump right back into that. I would say everyone I know who wrote a book previously was like, you have to write an outline, you have to write an outline. I couldn’t do that, actually, because my brain doesn’t know where the story’s going to end until I get there.
Rumpus: What were the challenges of writing in stream of consciousness?
Licht: That’s part of the problem of not writing an outline, because you don’t have an order or an organization to the content. I ended up writing everything in three months, because I was really disciplined about how many words per day I needed to write so I didn’t fall behind, which was 596, by the way. But then you end up with just content, so you have to start organizing it. I literally printed the entire thing and laid it out on my living room floor, and started to group things that made sense going together. What would happen is you’d have a ton of info on what seemed like one chapter, and then not enough for another chapter. I’d have to go back in and add more writing for the chapter that was short. The editing process is something I really hope I don’t have to do again. It was really not that much fun. There was definitely a downside to not having an outline, for sure.
Rumpus: Did the book’s format emerge organically from the writing process, or did you intentionally impose that structure?
Licht: I wanted the content to be easily retrievable. I didn’t want it to be this dense work where you’re like, “Oh wait, I remember she said something about X,” and then you’re like, “Wait, where do I find that?” If I could have put in multiple colors I would have. I’m a big highlighter person. I wanted to actually ship the book with highlighters, which I guess would be logistically difficult for the publisher. I like to be able to retrieve info quickly, and I thought that the “Insider Tip,” that one line, that bullet, that felt very much like Twitter to me, and my brain is so used to thinking in that kind of format, so it was very easy for me at the end of each point to come up with that. I didn’t count the characters, but I bet you they’re within tweet length, because it’s just how my brain works. I wanted people to walk away with, “That’s a great story, but here’s the punchline.” As far as “Taking a Selfie,” I thought that would be a fun play on taking a selfie, which I’m not personally a big selfie taker, but obviously people are, and I thought that it would be a great exercise to have people ask themselves those kinds of questions, because when else would you ask yourself these kinds of questions except in a self-help career guide book?
Rumpus: You mention making paths and building ladders where there are none a few times in the book. What happens when you fail or hit a major roadblock?
Licht: You almost can’t have a hard and fast plan. My goal, when I was trying to move up the ladder in editorial, was to get another job in editorial, to be an editor. I got hit with two setbacks—A, not getting the promotion, and B, going on an interview that left me with quite the bitter taste in my mouth. One of the best things you can do in those situations, instead of getting down in the dumps and thinking, “Okay, I didn’t get the promotion,” or “I’m not going to get this job,” instead of wallowing in it, to just press the reset button immediately and come up with another idea. My other idea was really kind of a radical one: I’m not going to get this editor job, so you know what, I’m leaving editorial. It was a rash decision on my part, looking back on it, because it’s not like I went on so many interviews and didn’t get jobs, I went on one basically. Would I have done that now? I don’t know. Maybe I would have gone on ten more interviews and exhausted every single magazine editorial job. You have to stick with the decisions you make, and I was over it. I was like, “That’s it, I’m done, I’m going to switch to a different field.”
When people get desperate and they start to hit brick walls, I think it’s really important to look at your surroundings. It’s very hard to have clear vision when you’re in that situation, but if you can have clear vision and think about who you know, who your friends might know, who you can meet on social media, different ways to connect the dots to create that popcorn path to your job. It’s really effective.
People have been emailing my little “Ask Aliza” tab on my website, and I’m getting questions from all over the world, various very, very specific work problems, like very specific to the person who’s writing in, and it’s amazing how you can solve someone’s problem by just having that added perspective on a stranger’s situation. If someone tells me their problem, I’m like, “Wait, did you try X, Y, and Z?” and they’re like, “No wait, I didn’t even think to do that.” It’s more just being really objective and really exhausting every single resource you have to try to navigate your way through a situation. It does work if you really use what’s at your fingertips. Everyone has a network, and how they use it—whether it’s family or friends or colleagues—how they use it is what makes the difference between success or failure. More so than the skills sometimes.
Rumpus: Speaking of skills and networking, what do you think makes a good social media story?
Licht: You have to start with what the end goal is. Whether it’s to build your own name, to launch a business, launch a book for example, you have to really think out what you’re trying to do on that platform and create a filter in your mind whereby before you post something, you say to yourself, “Why am I posting this, what is the purpose of this, is it going to help my end goal? Am I trying to be funny? Am I trying to be educational? Am I trying to be interesting?” Because it is strategic when you’re starting to craft your presence. Obviously when you start to build a following you can, I wouldn’t say get rid of the filter because you still need it, but you can be a little bit more flexible in what you post, because people already know you. Even with DKNY PR Girl, in the beginning it was testing out like, “If I post this, what’s the reaction going to be, are people going to take it the wrong way?” That’s one of the reasons why I came up with the sarcasm font.
Rumpus: Yes, I did appreciate that.
Licht: I felt really nervous, because I am very sarcastic at times. It’s just my natural way, and you can’t read that tonality in text. I was so scared, here I am tweeting on behalf of a company, and god forbid people are going to take that totally the wrong way. Yet I didn’t want to sacrifice being funny, so I had to come up with a way to do that. That’s why I came up with the sarcasm font.
But going back to your original question, it’s like watching a TV show. Why do you watch certain TV shows? Either you’re entertained or you’re learning something. There has to be a reason why you follow someone in social media. Whether you’re intrigued by their life or you want to learn more about what they’re doing. It can’t just be about posting nonsensical things. There has to be more of a strategy to it. My strategy happens to be off the cuff, so it’s whatever I’m feeling in that moment. Right now it’s a lot of responsive posts, which almost upsets me in a way, because I’ve been so busy in the past two months since the book launch. I love coming up with creative tweets and different things to say, but sometimes you get so behind that all you can do is respond to people. That engagement is so important, and people forget it’s called social media for a reason. You have to keep the social in it, especially if you’re a brand, humanizing a brand, creating that social voice, making people feel like you’re not this robot pushing out branded content. People don’t need to read another commercial. You have to make an emotional connection with the reader, the same as you have to do in your writing, whether it’s for a blog post or a long form novel. You have to make an emotional connection.
Again, going back, what is the end goal? I want to launch a book, so I’m going to make my world in this Twitter handle completely and utterly book related, and then you go from there, and you sort of watch people, and you see what they do. It’s not easy to grow a following on Twitter these days.
Rumpus: Is it harder to grow a following on Twitter now than it was in 2009 when you started?
Licht: One hundred percent. In 2009 Twitter in particular was completely an anomaly. I remember being in the nail salon getting a pedicure, and I looked over at the girl next to me and she was scrolling through Twitter. It was the first time I had seen someone else on Twitter, because it wasn’t common, certainly not for brands. DKNY was definitely one of the first fashion brands to get on Twitter. It was like the Wild West in a way. I had no idea what I was doing and I had to just figure it out, so I did. The people who started back then were able to grow a community more easily than now.
Rumpus: As someone who started her career before social media and is now an avid user, how do you think platforms like Twitter have changed the way we communicate?
Licht: It has changed everything. We had this whole PR strategy for launching a certain campaign with a celebrity, and we spent two weeks working on the timeline and when we were going to release the assets. One afternoon I was just sitting at my desk, and I’m scrolling through TweetDeck, and I see our ad campaign is online, someone leaked it. Social media completely can foil any real strategy that you put together. But on the positive side of things, journalists are obsessed with Twitter just like PR people are obsessed with Twitter, so it makes it very, very easy to broaden your network for work, by sort of being in a pool all day with these people, and then maybe communicating, maybe not, maybe liking a post, maybe sharing something. It makes it that much easier when and if a week later, two weeks later, a month later, you have to chat formally for something work related. It changes everything. People know you better, even if you don’t know them in person. They think they know you because your emails are automatically friendlier. It breaks down barriers in that way. It makes everything more creative and interesting and I think it’s all for the better.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little about the blurring of boundaries between work and personal life?
Licht: I meant the blurring in the sense of you can post something on your personal profile that you think is “personal,” but your boss can see it and it can change their perception of you, inadvertently, but you can’t just unsee something. Sometimes I’ll see someone’s post and I’ll be like, “Oh god, no, don’t.” You want to be like, “Undo, undo,” because you hope that person’s boss doesn’t see that tweet. Or when someone goes on an interview and they mouth off about the interview process or the company. Don’t do that; they’re checking. I think there’s a level of common sense to this that sometimes people lack. Maybe people think that there’s so many millions of people on it and so many posts it’s like a needle in a haystack. Yet they always find it.
Rumpus: You seem to always be on call for work, yet you also have a personal life. How do you balance everything?
Licht: I’m a Gemini; I can do a lot of things at once. I’ll go hours and hours without thinking about anything social media related and then you pause for a second and you think, “Let me see what’s there.” It just becomes sort of habit. My job requires attention every day at some point. I’ll go on vacation, I’m not sitting on email all day, but at the end of the day at the beach, I’ll go back in and I’ll glance. You don’t have to respond necessarily, but you want to eyeball and make sure there isn’t a fire starting that you could put out. And conversely, that there isn’t an opportunity you’d be missing because you just didn’t check. I believe in an owner’s mentality. if you owned the company, you would check. People who have that owner’s mentality early on in their career go far.
Rumpus: What advice would you give your younger self?
Licht: I would take her head out of the sand a little bit. I had no bigger picture view, I was very very, very in the moment. Which was very positive, because I did the work, I put my head down, and I gave 200 percent and it paid off. But I think from the perspective of building a name for yourself, building a network, really understanding how those things matter, I didn’t learn that until much later. I always cared about my “reputation,” but not the bigger more aerial view of what does your name mean, who do you know, how do you build of your network so that you have these allies that you can help and that they can also help you. The whole aspect of personal branding was not a thing back then. I don’t think it was really a thing until social. Back then when I was 22, 23, I had no idea. Like you had your boss and you had the assistant who sat next to you, and that was your network.
Rumpus: Was there a specific incident that showed you the importance of networking?
Licht: I learned it in recent years, and I learned it from these really successful women. This makes me really happy, because there are so many really successful women who cannot wait to help you. That’s what I’ve found over and over again. I do not find in my later career, the people that I met back when I was trying to make it in editorial. I find women who are genuinely interested in what you’re doing and who are the first people to say, “Okay, let me think who I know who can help you,” and in turn I do the same thing. It’s an amazing reciprocation of good karma.
Rumpus: For you as a publicist, what was it like to have your own publicist?
Licht: Do you want to know how many I have? It’s kind of crazy. I have one US, one Canadian, one UK, these are all from the publishing house, and then I have Angela, who is my quote unquote book publicist, because everyone told me you have to have an outside one, you can’t just have the in house ones. It’s been an amazing collaboration. I always like working with publicists, even when you sometimes hire outside people, because you always learn different ways to do things. I’m never at a maximum for learning. It’s been fun, it’s been really fun.
Rumpus: What is the one thing you hope readers will take away from your book?
Licht: I think I’ve already experienced it, which I’m very happy to say, because I get all these emails from the website of feedback of people telling me how they’ve applied certain principles, and how it’s completely changed the way they do things. My biggest point is really the self-reflection part. I want the reader to walk away thinking, “Okay, how am I doing? What can I do better? How can I employ some of these tips to progress forward?” It’s not about being perfect, but it’s about progress, and that really is my goal. If I can help people do that, I can’t tell you how satisfied I am. It’s the best feeling ever.
Rumpus: Anything else you’d like to add?
Licht: One of the best ways to propel yourself forward, like tomorrow, like instantly, instead of thinking, “Oh my god, what do I do, oh my god, this is not working, no one’s responding,” is to stop. Find someone that you can help instead. It’s this mentality of feeling that you’ve accomplished something. Sometimes when you go days without succeeding or accomplishing something, you get in that rut of nothing’s working, but sometimes if you just stop, and you turn it around, and you try to lend support to somebody else’s cause, it’s that energy boost that you need to start again.
This interview was conducted before Licht’s departure from DKNY.