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Brands, Credibility and Cesspools

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Google CEO Eric Schmidt believes the Internet is a “cesspool” of false information, and that filters are needed to help sort through the muck and mire. Most observers agree that some sort of credibility/trust delivery filter for news and information is now necessary -- how else can we be sure that the news we see and hear is actually true? -- but they disagree as to what the best filter may be. Predictably, corporate executives like Schmidt offer their corporate “brands” as the answer. "Brands are the solution, not the problem," Schmidt told a collection of top American magazine editors last fall. "Brands are how you sort out the cesspool."  

Many executives in traditional media companies share Schmidt’s belief in brand power. Richard Stengel, executive editor of Time Magazine, is among them. At the Time Warner “Politics 2008 – Media Summit” in October, Stengel remarked, “I actually think that in this blizzard-like universe of news usage, brands are actually more important and rising above the chaos because people don’t have places they can trust and rely on.”

Paul Slavin, senior vice president of digital media at ABC News, is in accord. “Brands are the answer to the credibility questions,” Slavin says. “ABC News is known worldwide, and most people feel we are balanced and fair, that we offer a vetted, careful environment for news and information.” He believes that brands are already being used as a necessary filter to combat the “too much information” problem, and that our reliance on them will grow over time. “Brand power will only increase as noise level increases,” Slavin explains. “It will all come back to tried and true brands. The fundamental understanding of and protection of our brand truly is our future.”

Slavin, who has coordinated ABC News’ exploration of and collaboration with the emerging media, said in a 2008 interview that ABC “started looking for relationships with social networks a year and a half ago. We looked at MySpace first, then Facebook.” The motive, he says, was simple: “We wanted to tap into their younger demo and expose them to our content.” In the end, ABC decided to work with Facebook. “Facebook friends function as personal aggregators, and that can be very powerful,” Slavin believes. “We needed to figure out how to tap into that.”

In November 2007, ABC entered into a formal partnership with Facebook, the first of its kind with a traditional media outlet. The agreement enabled Facebook users to follow ABC reporters electronically, view reports and video and participate in polls and debates. The companies also announced that they would collaborate to sponsor a presidential debate in New Hampshire on January 5, 2008. Facebook users around the world could connect and instantly discuss the debate as it occurred live on ABC.



The ABC Facebook page received a lot of traffic “when actively promoted by Facebook,” says Slavin. “We had very good cooperation and coordination initially, and it resulted in 1.5 million downloads.” Slavin recalls. Later the social network changed direction, however, and decided it didn’t want “a strong relationship with just one media group like ABC. We had talked about more collaboration in the general election,” Slavin says. “Our goal was to expand our audience to include people not coming to us for news already. The Facebook relationship can be very powerful if and when Facebook wants to do it and pushes it.”

Why was ABC so interested in the online social networks? “If you’re ABC News, your content can spread virally through all these friend networks,” Steve Outing, an interactive media columnist for Editor & Publisher magazine, explained to the New York Times. Slavin says, “In terms of the election, it gave us another way to communicate and to generate interest and questions for town halls. Sure, we were looking for ways to connect with their audience of young people. We had already looked at YouTube – then they did a debate with CNN and got very hot.” (YouTube’s partnership with CNN for two debates during the primary season was perhaps the most high-profile emerging media/legacy media partnership during the 2008 presidential election cycle. Users were able to upload video questions for the candidates, which were then vetted by YouTube and CNN and played during the debates. CNN came under fire during one debate, however, for unknowingly allowing a retired brigadier general who served on an advisory committee to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to ask the candidates about gay men and lesbians in the military. The retired general had uploaded his question via YouTube.)

Paul Slavin says ABC News would “love to work with Facebook more,” and that he is “looking to re-engage and expand the relationship.” He still finds YouTube interesting, but “is not sure what we would get out of the relationship, since there is no money to be made -- maybe marketing?” In conclusion, he notes, “Everybody is grappling with this now. This is the most interesting time I’ve ever experienced in news business. There’s such an explosion of new technology that my main problem is that there are simply not enough hours in the day to deal with it all. Everyone is talking to everyone else, and we’re all trying to figure this out.”

Mark Lukasiewicz is another top network news executive who is grappling with the related issues of legacy media, emerging media and trust. Lukasiewicz, vice president for digital media at NBC News, takes issue with some of what Schmidt and Slavin say. “The Internet is a conveyor belt for information, not a repository of it,” Lukasiewicz begins.  “You could call the telephone system a cesspool of misinformation as well! Let’s not blame the messenger. The Net is no more of a cesspool than life in general.

“The question is: What tools do people have to determine what is true?’” Lukasiewicz says. “In previous times, the medium itself conveyed some of that trust relationship. But now, since so much information comes through this new device of the Internet, it’s become a lot harder to make those distinctions. Branding is part of what’s necessary,” he believes, “But the big challenge for mainstream media like us is that people today are less trusting of news brands -- the war in Iraq had a great deal to do with that  -- and now this new ability of people to find and share information on their own feeds into that.”

Lukasiewicz says that other, fundamental changes are also shaking the firmament of the legacy media. “After all, what conveys authority?” he asks. “That is what is changing... Today, for us in the mainstream media, being a singular provider -- the one brand, offering everything it and only it produces -- is actually a negative. People want to see a multiplicity of sources; they want you to be comprehensive. So if we link out, and offer content other than our own -- even that of our competitors -- it still enhances our own brand in the eyes of the consumer.

“I know there is more than one vision and more than one view point,” says Lukasiewicz. “Multiple view points are what consumers want. So you build a trusted brand by sharing others’ content. It sounds a bit paradoxical but...it works, even though in traditional media terms, linking to the competition once would have been seen as self-destructive.”

     Lukasiewicz thinks that some sort of hybrid social/brand filter may be the answer. “The brand that increasingly matters is the one called ‘my friend,” he says. “People don’t come to Facebook for news content—but they get it there. So yes, NBC News wants to be your trusted friend. And I do that by being in all the places where you are -- cell phone, online, in the back of a taxicab, on a screen in an airliner, on Facebook, you name it -- when I do what I do. I want to be there for you, where and when you want it.

“All this is still rapidly evolving,” Lukasiewicz concludes. “For credible coverage of major events, for example, people still turn to trusted news brands. But in the future, I really believe that if you can create a cross-platform home for your news delivery, you will also succeed in creating a trusted brand.”

 

www.roryoconnor.org

Filmmaker and journalist Rory O'Connor writes the 'Media Is A Plural' blog, accessible at www.roryoconnor.org.

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