Published on April 13, 2020, at 5:10 p.m.
by Jordan Axel.
What started as a swimsuit contest to increase tourism in Atlantic City, New Jersey, after Labor Day, has become the Biggest Scholarship Provider in the world. In 2019, the Miss America Organization, under new leadership, rebranded and became known as Miss America 2.0. Prior to social media, titleholders mainly promoted the four points of the crown — style, scholarship, service and success — and their reach was limited to live speaking engagements and special events.
Katie Sam Irk was crowned the first and only Miss America from the state of Indiana in 2009. Irk said at the time she was crowned, Facebook was the main social media platform, but the Miss America Organization did not participate.
“Because of this, the only method to promote my activities and the MAO brand during my year of service was through press releases. Every month, with about a half a dozen pictures attached, an email was sent out letting people know what I had been up to,” Irk said. “Now, there is an anticipation and an expectation that there will be content numerous times every day on every platform.”
Today, Miss America candidates also participate in executive and communications workshops prior to the national competition. The rise of social media has extended each titleholder’s level of influence, helped engage external audiences, and promoted the work and service completed by women across the country.
Miss America wears many hats. She is an advocate, spokesperson, representative — and now, a social media and branding pro.
The history of Miss America
The Miss America competition allows women between the ages of 17 and 25, who are unmarried and from the United States, to compete for scholarship awards and the opportunity to serve their respective city, state or nation. Requiring a talent performance and awarding funds to women wanting to further their education, it is the first of its kind.
As of 2019, the Miss America Organization eliminated the swimsuit competition and is now comprised of four phases of competition: a private interview, an on-stage interview, a social impact initiative pitch and talent.
A unique facet to the Miss America Organization, which sprouted in the ’90s, is the requirement to have a personal platform or social impact initiative. Holding a title is about community service and being an advocate for others. Each candidate has the option to choose the social cause they want to promote throughout their year of service.
Michaela McLean, a former writer for Platform Magazine and Miss Florida 2019, is a passionate advocate for her social impact initiative Brave & Beautiful: Breaking Free from Behind the Screen.” Through her personal endeavors and experience interacting with young women from all over the world, “Brave & Beautiful” desires to reach girls from multiple nations to “believe in the purpose-driven life we were created for.”
The rise of social media
The role of a titleholder has always included being an ambassador of the Miss America Organization’s brand. However, the rise of social media requires titleholders to have a greater understanding of how to identify and communicate their personal brands to external and internal audiences through social media platforms.
“Whether I knew it or not, I established my personal brand in front of 4.5 million viewers during the live telecast of the pageant that year,” Irk said. “For those of us pre-social media women, this was our opportunity to establish or promote a ‘brand.’”
However today, McLean said, “your social media profile is a clear depiction of your brand.”
Social media allows candidates to reach a broader audience than ever before — titleholders can only attend so many events. McLean said, because she can’t meet every follower, “it is important for me to showcase my personality and daily duties as Miss Florida to keep my audience engaged and excited about the organization.”
Irk shared that when she was Miss America, the content in press releases was always focused on “where I went, who I was with, and what I did.” She continued, “Now it’s that, plus fashion, makeup tutorials, live chats, play-by-play accounts of appearances, transportation, media stops, meals and hotels, just to name a few.”
Today, every local, state and national titleholder has specific social media accounts to operate and create content for. While reaching broader and larger audiences is beneficial, it comes with more responsibility.
Social media activity and self-branding have “raised the overall bar for states,” said Megan Swanson, Miss Nebraska 2015. For Swanson, Instagram was only two years old when she represented Nebraska. She said, “It was a much different game.”
Prior to social media, “it was harder to get sponsors and have leverage as a titleholder,” said Swanson. “Now it is much easier to fundraise and generate support for your social impact initiative.”
The importance of branding
When the crown is placed on a candidate’s head, she is tasked with the responsibility of representing the brand of Miss America, but also showcasing her own brand — like a walking billboard. This two-fold responsibility can be daunting for someone with no background in public relations or experience with branding.
Irk said the first time she heard about personal branding was in the middle of her year of service as Miss America 2009. A friend of Irk’s told her that her personal brand was evident throughout the live telecast, and used words such as “natural, pure, clean and fresh,” to describe it.
Fortunately for McLean, who earned a degree in public relations, her experience in the Miss America Organization only added to the foundation she had started. “The Miss America Organization showed me the importance of consistent personal branding across all networks,” she said. “It helped me become more specific in my branding details, from finalizing my website, to creating a logo, to daily updating my social media platforms.”
The Miss America competition has evolved to resemble a job interview. Like many hiring managers, judges also do their research prior to the competition, so how candidates represent themselves on social media matters. McLean said, “Panels of judges are looking at young women’s LinkedIn profiles, Instagram and Facebook profiles before interviewing for the job.”
“Prepare great women for the world. Prepare the world for great women.”
The Miss America organization continues to develop and equip women to further their personal and professional goals. The organization pushes women to stand for what they believe in and gives them a platform to advocate for others. The competition is known for building confidence, developing public speaking skills and promoting community involvement. Now, the Miss America Organization is raising up a generation of women who know how to brand themselves, communicate who they are and positively represent themselves on social media.
The following comments are lessons that former and present titleholders learned through their experience with branding and social media:
“Miss Georgia at this year’s Miss America competition said that she has a rule that she will only post if it is kind, truthful and necessary. I really loved this and accepted this as a litmus test for my postings as well.” — Katie Stam Irk, Miss America 2009
“The Miss America Organization taught me the importance of understanding what your core values are, and how to align your personal brand with that of an organization. It is crucial to clearly define who you are and what you stand for.” — Ellie Barmes, Miss Indiana’s Outstanding Teen 2017
“Throughout my involvement in the Miss America Organization, I developed a great passion and drive for so many great causes while also discovering what defines me. This program gave me an outlet to share my personal style and story — creating a unique brand for myself.” — Katie Allen, Miss Maryland’s Outstanding Teen 2018
“As a titleholder, I have had the most joy and freedom in letting go of others’ opinions about myself and brand and fully embracing all the things that make me myself! So … own your brand because it’s authentic to you!” — Michaela McLean, Miss Florida 2019