“Breaking Down the State of the Media in 2017,” was a fascinating and discouraging examination of the lack of trust in the media. Gallup reports: “Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history.”
On March 29th, top editors, thought leaders and a Fortune 500 digital brand innovator gathered at Cision to discuss their insights and recommendations for communications and public relations practitioners.
The panelists included top media, John Avlon, Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Beast, author of, Washington’s Farewell: The Founding Father’s Warning to Future Generations, Brian Braiker, Executive Editor of Digiday and recently named editor of Advertising Age, a beloved brand, Katrina Craigwell, Vice-President of General Electric Digital Innovation, and a renowned crisis communications firm, Richard Levick, Chairman and CEO of LEVICK and co-author of five books, including, The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis; Stop the Presses offered in-depth analysis on how and why this distrust came about.
Chris Lynch, CMO of Cision moderated with in-depth insights and questions from the, “State of the Media Report.” As marketers, we typically stay away from touchy political issues. But with the report’s findings it’s impossible to a not have a political discussion. Time Magazine’s April 3rd cover asked, “Is Truth Dead?” John, I want to start with you as a media outlet that has a big focus on politics. Have you spent time redefining what truth means?
What Does Truth Mean In Our New Political Environment?
John Avlon: The meaning of truth is constant. Truth is not dead. But we’re in a different challenging environment in which concepts of truth are being aggressively challenged by alternative facts, or an outright oppositional approach to the media. We journalists need to confront the distrust in the media which has been going on for decades.
It’s largely, the result of two large dynamics, fragmentation of the media environment that has literally democratized it, allowing people to self-segregate into separate political realities with business models that cater to it. And, concurrently, the rise of partisan media, which is a real problem because it’s balkanized our country. We need to reassert some basic truths.
One of my favorite quotes is by former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is, “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” We must insist on a fact-based debate, and to be able to call a lie a lie without flinching. Fundamentally, it’s the job of journalists to call BS if people lie or spin and make important stories interesting.
So much of the gravitational pull is towards the lowest common denominator, to drag people into the mud and distract them from what matters at the end of the day.
Marketers shouldn’t be afraid of dealing with real news. If you want to reach real influential individuals, meet them where they live by dealing with the real issues of the world. You must confront the realities of our times. If you’re afraid, you become part of the problem.
What is Fake News?
Chris Lynch: Brian, let’s talk about the concept of fake news. Where is the role of content syndication? As the election was unfolding and in, “The State of the Media Report,” we learned how Facebook and Google tailor their algorithms to present and disseminate content across the world has a major huge impact.
Brian Braiker: In the aftermath of the election, Facebook has said we’re not a media company, we’re a platform. To an extent that’s true. The idea of Facebook coming in as an editor or arbiter of news is not what people want. But the term, fake news is so watered down, it’s almost meaningless.
There’s lots of different types of fake news. News that has a kernel of truth but is given a spin, a news hoax, and everything in-between, including organizations getting incorrect facts. Platforms facilitate this spread as Facebook has 2 billion people. Freedom of speech means we can say what we want if it’s truthful.
Chris Lynch: It’s overwhelming to consumers and brands. Richard, what advice have you been giving companies?
Richard Levick: This moment is historical. Unwinding of 75-years of post-World War II alliances, unwinding of the Jeffersonian ideal as a marketplace of ideas when we were unafraid of information and debating. That’s why I was always a Jeffersonian. More democracy is good, but now it’s more like a presentative democracy.
If there’s too much truth, there’s none. Next, there’s an extraordinary amount of hatred. ACL, Planned Parented hood and four million people marched after Trump was indoctrinated. These are highly activated bases that get information from one data point and assume it’s true. Rallies against Kellogg’s after it pulled its advertising from Breitbart.
Yuengling invited Donald Trump to come to their distillers, then suddenly were no longer being carried, and New Balance on the TPP (The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a trade deal that both New Balance and Trump oppose).
For companies the last two weeks of the Presidency was very complicated. It was easy and better to oppose the President in this completely different environment, unless you’re a B2G supplier (business-to-government). We need to look at history and how anger has changed the markets.
B2B2C can safely oppose the President but companies need to think about the positioning of symbols because they carry more emotional weight and look at the past which is a prologue to the future.
Brand Consistency, Authenticity and Loyalty
Brian Braiker: Wouldn’t be safer if it aligns with their DNA?
Richard Levick: Yes, you must be consistent with your brand because companies are looked upon as personalities. Starbucks and Nordstrom opposed the President easily.
Chris Lynch: It’s overwhelming to consumers and brands dealing with issues around brand credibility. What’s your advice? Katrina, how are you emphasizing authenticity at GE?
Katrina Craigwell: As marketers, we seek to attract attention and we hope we’re pushing ourselves to earn that attention. Now it’s foundational. Rather than scream and shout, it’s what’s the value you’re creating and for whom? In the last five or ten years, brands, can reach people directly. We have been on a journey of the proliferation of information. That gain isn’t just a volume gain in three, six or thirty seconds. How are we using this tool to run better business to drive value?
John Avlon: Influence matters more that scale for its own sake. Commodity news is almost by definition valueless. Differentiation, loyalty and quality are what matters most. The problem is broad programmatic ad buys. You have no control over what your content ends up against. It could be fake news and hate news. It’s a privilege to have relationships with publishers who’ve established credibility.
Corporate citizens need to be the change they want to see. We have an enormous amount of influence if we all stand-up and reset the equation.
Chris Lynch: For us the “The State of the Media Report” is always an inflection point. From your vantage point, what are the changes within the last 12 months?
Katrina Craigwell: We think about how incredible our publishers are who keep us safe, understand their audiences and learn their needs. With Facebook and LinkedIn, we reach our customers and our publishers directly.
Aim for the Head and the Heart
Chris Lynch: While digging into the data, we discovered 51% of journalists feel influencers care more about opinions and feelings than hard core facts.
Richard Levick: There’s an immense amount of truth in that. Automobile companies (and the military) are the largest advertisers on television. When was the last time you saw an automobile ad about the facts? They’re always showing attractive men and women that illustrate, if you buy this product, you’ll look like this, act like this and you’ll be with one of us.
Capitalism has always been about emotion. But, it’s rawer now.
We’re entering a generation where drinking a Starbucks coffee and wearing Nordstrom shoes is suddenly a political statement. Companies need to understand the buying habits of the brands but also the politics of their customers. We’re at a more emotive point. Brands are becoming symbols within themselves.
Brian Braiker: There’s a difference between emotion and quality. You can have a headline or a factual news story that resonate emotionally with high quality content. But, it’s just as likely to be fake news or manipulative. The oldest maximum in news is, “If it bleeds it leads.” There’s nothing more emotional than that. But it needs to be backed up with metrics and reporting. These are the stories that are most compelling.
John Avlon: One of maxims inside the newsroom is you want to aim for the head and the heart. You must be in that sweet spot where they intersect. Entertain, while we give facts.
Chris Lynch: My favorite book was, Boys on the Bus, an interesting read about the difference between truth, objectivity and facts. Often what’s omitted from the story is just as powerful as what’s in it. I see a lot of parallels with today’s media.
On the One Hand vs. On the Other Hand
John Avlon: Great book. We’re on the side of truth which speaks to a lot of journalists’ sincere aspirations towards objectivity. At, The Daily Beast, we’re non-partisan but not neutral. We will hit from the right or left as the facts provide. But, we will not necessarily do on the one hand, on the other.
I’m a centrist and believe the wrong way to do that is to act like everyone’s opinion is the same. We need to insist on a fact-based debate and hit both sides. Not simply defaulting to, on the one hand vs. the other.
Brian Braiker: The problem with, on the one hand, on the other hand framework, you’re giving two parties equal voice on any given issue. That’s how you muddy the waters. To maintain credibility, you must be able to call BS when there’s BS and use impartial and critical observations of the industry, and celebrate when it’s done right.
Richard Levick: Boys on the Bus is a seminal lesson. A single line was repeated by all the journalists. With Reagan’s famously coordinated line of the day and Clinton’s, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
We’ve never witnessed the disassembling of all our political institutions, like the UN, EEU, the FCC, Justice Department, the FBI, the hacking and the election’s impact. We’ve never seen an institution with such soft power.
Chris Lynch: On the brand side, as the last year’s evolved, businesses are grabbing click-bait (a pejorative term about generating online advertising revenue) to manipulate the consumer and it’s working by manufacturing emotion.
Katrina Craigwell: Emotion vs. fact. For the audience, on the receiving end, the audience is human and there’s emotion and the need to know what’s going on. Our collective psyche is going through a proliferation of content. We’re incredibly grateful to work with publisher partners, influencers, bloggers, and craftspeople who have come up on Instagram and YouTube, have built audiences around their love of science and technology, a curiosity about physics, and a love of physical spaces. It is an amazing gift to invite them into our spaces.
Around utilities we are consuming more information in smaller doses. We think about how to deliver information succinctly in a news feed, in an email, in a video and packaging it to fit on a mobile screen.
Be Informed by Data But Be Not A Slave To It
Chris Lynch: John, in the last five years, looking at content consumption on the media side has become much more of a science. What do you look for from an editorial standpoint?
John Avlon: The data is great. The key is to balance data with the improvisational art form which is news. It’s science and jazz. We have amazing real-time data. But, there’s a problem if you become slaves to the algorithms, which leads all sites to an undifferentiated mass of click-bait.
It’s important to know who you are, how your brand is differentiated, have a mission statement that is clear internally and externally. This is a badge to readers and there must be constant calibrations. All the data is extremely valuable but there are some truths that transcend. Something eighteen months ago can be commoditized today.
Brian Braiker: Be informed by the data but not slaves to it. Honestly, it helps give us sense of where readers are going, helps us tweak headlines and spreads the content. Scale for scale’s sake creates undifferentiated viral clones, where you die by the algorithms.
Chris Lynch: On the brand side, how are you looking at the different mix? How are you looking at the data?
Richard Levick: On the crisis side, we are in a technology revolution which is much more complex. Companies are not very good at looking at the data points vs. getting to the wisdom. I’m hard-pressed to think of any issue on the corporate side which has risen to the level of a public policy issue where you couldn’t have found the canary in the coal mine first.
People are missing that in an internet revolution that’s much more that digital. It’s the transformation from a republic (small r) to a democracy (small d). We knew the four horsemen for our brand strategies, advertising, public relations, lobbying and pack funding. But now it’s in diminishing levels. You must look at what’s going to happen and plan. Truth may be debatable, but it’s what we know first.
John Avlon: It’s delayed advertising but still an operational conversation.
The Power of a Differentiated Brand
Chris Lynch: There’s so much doom and gloom. People don’t have trust in our content. I’m a bit of an optimist. I’ve been reading a lot of things that give me hope. The Washington Post is expanding 10%, so people are starting to trust the media. Did we need to bottom out for this to happen?
John Avlon: One of my favorite quotes is allegedly Abraham Lincoln’s, “I’m an optimist because I don’t see the point in being anything else.” A lot of sites saw traffic or subscriptions with the, “Trump bump” (the traffic jumps for online news outlets and the pumped-up entertainment industry in the month following Trump’s inauguration).
It’s rooted in an appreciation, not taking for granted the job that we do. The Constitution doesn’t speak about political parties. It does mention journalists. And when the free press and First Amendment are under attack, scrutiny, or an attempt to dilute the definition of truth we should rally around that. People need to step up and support it. Corporate citizens have a role in the change they want to see and why a free press is essential to democracy. It’s our responsibility to do this judiciously.
Brian Braiker: People seeing a bump in subscriptions speaks to the power of a differentiated brand, a strong journalist reputation with integrity and history. You’re seeing this at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate and The Daily Beast.
At Digiday, we’re seeing a return to what’s core to our brand and what resonates with our readers. There’s a stronger forging of great connections between publishers and their readers through newsletters and subscriptions.
Richard Levick: We’re seeing a return to the English model, to the America model of 200 years ago where media is having a political point of view. I’m not sure if we survive this test of the balance of government. Hats off to the Washington Post. Their masthead reads, “Democracy Dies in Darkness” and it reminds us of our responsibility that citizenship is both voluntary and required.
Chris Lynch: Is print media dead? What about brand newsrooms?
Brian Braiker: No. Whatever the medium is, it’s the messaging. Brand newsrooms is an “iffy term.”
Katrina Craigwell: Brand newsrooms is a valuable set of work. Why are we saying what we’re saying? Are we doing it to grab attention or are we doing it to reach a customer or prospect audience and add value to them. Say yes and show more.
Storytelling vs. Brand Newsrooms
John Avlon: Brand newsrooms should be about storytelling. Sponsoring sites or verticals you like which can be a powerful thing. Digital advertising should be part of a site’s sponsorship. GE sponsors a scientific site.
Brian Braiker: It’s about finding new life. The New York Times podcast, “The Daily,” underwritten by BMW, is a good example. You’re seeing a lot of brand content that is exciting and that you haven’t seen before and it’s creative. GE, “Orange in the New Black” interactive that The New York Times ran. There is a new creativity in brand journalism but the feel is brand advertising.
Chris Lynch: We have a client with tractor trailers. Instead of doing content about buying the trucks. The stories are about the truck drivers.
Katrina Craigwell: Your brand is a collection of humans, part of a community bringing a product or service to people which impacts their daily lives and communities.
Brian Braiker: GoPro does amazing branded content but they make cameras so it makes sense. It’s fun but it’s advertising.
John Avlon: GE connects the past with the future.
Chris Lynch: We’re often asked how the PR community is doing? Adding relevance and being a resource should be the goal, instead of always try to always pitch something. It’s about, helping me get my job done.
Engagement Over Scale
Brian Braiker: That’s a tough one. It’s a relationship and it unfolds over time. If you know what our site is about, understand our content, and want to start a conversation over time, that’s productive.
John Avlon: A press release disguised as an op ed is still a press release. It must be something bigger than yourself.
Chris Lynch: How do you think the state of the media will unfold in 2018?
Richard Levick: Dealing with the challenge that agencies have with integration. Our clients are frustrated with legacy systems. We must get this. We’re siloed, and it’s challenging. Digital will be just digital speak and not thinking about other things. Success lies in opening the kimono to new things.
Brian Braiker: The trends we’re seeing now will continue, like the direct connection with readers. I’m curious to see what Snapchat, Amazon and our Presidency will do. Also, what will happen with programmatic issues? Ironing that out or it surfacing even more?
Katrina Craigwell: Renewal on all sides, public relations, executive, publisher, advertiser and media outlets to do good work which is less about attention and more about value.
John Avlon: I’d like to see more acts of appreciation. Engagement should be part of that metric as it’s more valuable than scale. It’s a proxy for loyalty and trust. Readers and brands need to step up and support the outlets that consumers support and develop a sense of responsibility.
At the conclusion of the livestream event, I continued the discussion of truth, freedom of speech and the Constitution with John Avlon and Brian Braiker. My favorite quotes are from, “Good Night and Good Luck” where Richard R. Murrow challenges McCarthyism and stands up for our First Amendment rights, “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; credible we must be truthful,” and, “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. When the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”
As PR and communications professionals, how will you make an impact? Help your clients and brands understand how the political environment impacts businesses across every industry sector? Or, will you remain an outsider watching things unfold because you’re afraid to speak out?
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About the Author: Wendy Glavin is Founder and CEO of Wendy Glavin Agency. Wendy is a 20-year veteran of corporate, agency, consulting and small business ownership. From General Electric to Burson-Marsteller, and other B2B2C firms, Wendy’s experience spans a variety of industry sectors. Wendy is a published writer and guest speaker. Please contact Wendy at firstname.lastname@example.org or through http://wendyglavin.com/.