Media Magnates: Does the Man Make the Brand?

Rock Center
Rock Center

This past week, the world of broadcast media was sent through the wringer when the beloved Jon Stewart announced he was leaving The Daily Show and NBC suspended Nightly News anchor Brian Williams for six months following his absurdly unnecessary string of lies.

What Stewart and Williams have in common is that they’re arguably broadcast television’s most famous faces. Their shows don’t support their personal brands; their personal brands make their shows. Without these two as the titular hosts, both nightly segments are at a crossroads in terms of future popularity.

Obviously a certain level of iconic, untouchable celebrity does wonders to preserve and grow a media program’s audience. Even when John Oliver took over for Stewart one summer, the show famously kept the name The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. So just how important is a central personality to a media brand’s appeal? And how far can one person carry (or in Williams’ case, sink) an entire news institution?

Ultimately, it depends on the diversity of the program’s offerings. Is there more to the show than the person delivering the news? Are there classic segments or consistent running themes? How strong is the brand’s personality and how unique is the reporting?

If I were an NBC executive right now, I’d be concerned about this in regards to Nightly News. I don’t know about you, but I can’t name a single thing about that show other than, “It’s hosted by Brian Williams.” Well, was. The news delivered on that show isn’t exactly magical content that you can’t find in thousands of other media outlets. And it doesn’t help that viewers, especially we the coveted millennials, now trust the whole program less, if we even cared about it in the first place.

I think The Daily Show, on the other hand, will be fine. Losing Stewart will be a blow to the brand, for sure, but audiences loved the show before Stewart joined years ago and they will continue to love it in the years following Stewart’s departure. Why? For one, it has a stellar supporting cast that’s produced countless other fan-favorite personalities over the past few decades. And its award-winning production staff isn’t just going to give up on the masterful program they’ve spent years refining – and to which they’ve consistently added relevant content that appeals to a wide range of viewers across different mediums. In other words, consider the number of Daily Show YouTube videos that have gone viral compared to the number of Nightly News ones.

So what does this all mean for media brands? Well, if you work at a company like The Economist, you’re pretty set. The brand delivers intelligent, varied and consumable content across print, Web and social channels (and events – that’s where a lot of the money is). It’s also such a trusted source that it doesn’t even need to attach the names of reporters to its articles. But if your journalism brand relies entirely on content produced and delivered by one key celebrity, just remember that person could always lose that clout in a matter of seconds – or move on to something new – and seriously screw your whole program.

Publishing and Social Media: Could This [Finally] Be Love?

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Let’s take it back to a magical time when newspapers were newspapers and social media was MySpace. It was 2005, and people spent their Sundays poring over a dense print edition of their local newspaper, section by section, before later turning to their enormous desktop computer screen and carefully curating their Top 8.

For a while, traditional media scoffed at social as a source of real news, smacking it down as merely reactive to the hard stuff – not the core of anything concrete but instead a cacophony of regurgitated opinions against a backdrop of cat memes and brunch Instagrams. But as social media has matured, it has evolved two specific functions: publishing and messaging.

Enter 2015. To the untrained eye, it’s almost like both spaces are currently in the midst of an identity crisis. Is LinkedIn a professional networking site or a professional publishing site? Is Facebook a social media network or a media company? And is Snapchat just indulging millenials’ selfie obsession, or is it surreptitiously converting the Internet generation into news junkies?

What we’re seeing is the beginning of the tech and media industries collapsing into one another. It makes sense – every other industry has been disrupted and reshaped by tech. Publishing was just late to the party after some internal identity struggles. The rules are also different here – these two spaces have grown into each other through a natural evolution in reporting, storytelling and information sharing rather than a single disruptive blow from one to the other. Lines haven’t been drawn; they’ve been blurred.

Some are dubbing it a journalistic “third way”: a marriage of old news norms and standards with the transparency and openness of social media. What will the hybrid children look like? Think Quartz, the digitally native offspring of old-media stalwart The Atlantic, which categorizes articles under “Obsessions” – topics of current interest that have more in common with trending hashtags than traditional news sections. Or Medium, publishing’s love child with Twitter that elevates citizen journalists into something that actually resembles real journalists. Or even the infant Reported.ly, fresh out of a “baptism by fire” after putting its social-first reporting and publishing model to the test by jumping into real-time coverage of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy a mere 48 hours after launching.

Whether you’re for this shift or against it, one thing is certain: there are more stories being told by a larger range of voices and in a greater number of ways than ever before. I don’t know about you, PR colleagues, but that sounds an awful lot like opportunity to me.

Socially Acceptable: Disclosure on Social Media

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

I’ve previously discussed the importance of disclosure – that is, making it clear as a day if compensation of any kind occurred for a piece of content, per Federal Trade Commission guidelines. In that post, I noted the FTC’s requirement to disclose within any social post if the content that is linked to is sponsored.

Well recently, the FTC exercised this mandate, settling charges with Deutsch LA for what the FTC deemed deceptive Twitter promotion. The notion that the FTC won’t actually monitor agencies’ social media activity as it relates to clients can officially be put to rest with this important wake up call.

Maybe you’re thinking the agency in question engaged in outrageous practices to mislead consumers. Well, you’d be wrong – the firm simply promoted a campaign for PlayStation (one of its clients) from employees’ personal handles, without disclosing PlayStation as a client. Did agency employees link to sponsored content they should have noted was paid for? Nope. Individuals were simply asked, not told, to tweet positive endorsements of a product while using a specific hashtag.

This isn’t meant to call out a specific agency and its campaign. This really could have been any number of agencies in an effort to build awareness for clients. Most, if not all, agencies only have one goal in mind: to do the best work they can for their clients. But in doing so, it’s easy to forget that while the client effectively operates as the agency’s “customer,” agencies must always keep their client’s customers in mind.

At Blanc & Otus, we have a long-standing policy in place that requires our team to call out whether a company is a client in promotional social posts. However, the rules are constantly changing and this is a great lesson as much as a cautionary tale. Disclosure can’t just occur via the agency social feeds – it extends to every employee of that agency, even those who may not work on or have anything to do with the specific account. Agencies should also take the measures needed to educate their employees on various disclosure mandates. For instance, this case was unrelated to disclosure of sponsored content, just content related to clients.

One easy quick fix to appease FTC regulators: simply add a #client or #ad hashtag to your post. I hope this helps and if you work in PR, communications or any other area where this might apply, feel free to get in touch with me with any questions at ndesai@blancandotus.com.

Holmes Report Innovator 25: A Thank You

I’d like to take a moment to thank the Holmes Report for including me in their list of Top 25 PR Innovators. It feels awesome to be included in such inspiring company, and I’d also like to take a moment to commend my friends and colleagues who’ve been recognized as fellow innovators in PR. In particular, I’d like to say congratulations to my friend Charlene Li for also making the list, and for inspiring so many of the ideas that many of us have been putting into practice this year.

What strikes me about the list this year is to what extent the people on this are passionate about their own particular vision for communications and content. Whether or not we “made the list,” that’s something all of us in PR share—we are all in service of telling somebody’s story, and we are all in service of innovating new ways to tell that story. And that involves a fair amount of “creative destruction”—which in PR takes the form of blowing up old processes and form factors to make way for more useful ones. As a troublemaker at heart, I have to admit to enjoying the destructive aspect of the creative process, and I’m curious how many of my colleagues on this list share my penchant for rhetorical demolition.

At B&O, the creative destruction in 2014 has been all around storytelling. If anything, my inclusion on this year’s innovators list is a nod to the hard work the entire B&O team has put into advancing our shared vision for Viral Storytelling. Our storytelling model, which like many other successful story models is based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, is pre-engineered to generate the positive word of mouth that drives sales, reputation, talent retention and brand engagement. And it’s a storytelling model we use in each and every one of our accounts.

What’s best about this story model is that it’s based on authenticity. We find what is most true about our clients. We help them discover the most compelling way to evangelize themselves and attach themselves to the trends that make them the most relevant. And we help them articulate their purpose and mission in a way that gets their audiences to want to see them succeed. It’s amazing what storytelling can do when it’s authentic and not all about yourself, as I had a chance to discuss in a recent speech at LinkedIn TechConnect 14.

It’s been fun to blog about storytelling and essentially open-source our Viral Storytelling model to the industry. We believe that smart innovations are worth sharing. And we’re just getting started. In the coming months, the broader bench here at B&O will be sharing even more inspiration and insight into innovative trends in communications, including:

  • The power of human connections and community uprising
  • Social and multichannel messaging
  • Brand journalism
  • Research tools, analytics and the power of big data in PR
  • Focusing our storytelling on the human impact of new technologies

Again, my thanks to Aarti Shah, Paul Holmes and the Holmes Report for including me as a Top 25 PR Innovator. And perhaps most importantly, on behalf of my B&O teammates and myself, I’d like to express our deep appreciation to our clients who’ve had the curiosity and courage to creatively destroy a few old models and co-create some high-impact stories with us this year.