A solid reputation is vital for media properties looking to form a lasting bond with consumers in a cluttered environment.
Consumer Reports (CR) is a venerable magazine whose reputation is based, perhaps more than that of any of its peers, on trust. That trust faced a serious challenge last January, when a widely read article proved to have serious errors. But the company's response to the crisis went a long way toward proving that emphatically open communications have assumed a more important role than ever in the modern media environment.
The trouble began when the magazine published a story purporting to show flaws in some child safety seats in impact tests. But the National Highway Safety Administration quickly informed CR of flaws in its testing procedures, meaning that the story had put forth mistaken results that could have a hugely detrimental impact on manufacturers.
Instead of quibbling, CR immediately set out to check its own work. When the mistake was confirmed, it set about making sure that everyone knew it.
The guiding principle was not to bury the mistake, but to ensure that the correction got just as much attention as the original story. CR pulled the story from its Web site, issued a press release, and began preparing an extensive follow-up story detailing the mistakes.
"When the original story had gone out there, we had a tremendous amount of national pickup," says Ken Weine, senior director of communications for Consumers Union (CU), the nonprofit that publishes CR. "We went just as broadly to all the national media organizations and said that something's wrong with our tests and we were withdrawing the story."
A week later, CU president James Guest sent a letter to CR 's millions of subscribers describing the problem and apologizing. He appointed an outside panel to examine what went wrong, and those findings were published in a following issue.
An open agenda
Response to the crisis wasn't pulled out of a set template. Its success - the fact that CR's reputation remains largely unsullied by any lasting charges of bias or incompetence - is owed to a broad guiding principle of openness within the organization, rather than to a crafty media strategy or clever pushing on the levers of influence.
"Looking back, we had a really responsive leadership... who did all the right things by the communications playbook," says Weine. "First: acted immediately. Number two: was completely transparent... and then the third step of writing this comprehensive story of what precisely went wrong and what we're doing about it."
In the post-Jayson Blair age, when every move of large media organizations is picked apart by online critics, it's hard to believe that a magazine like CR can survive and prosper. It accepts no advertising, getting the bulk of its funding through subscription revenue. And its motto, "Expert-Independent-Nonprofit" neatly sums up why its entire brand is built on trust. In such an environment, successful communication is a mandate that is a necessity, not a luxury.
Out of a sprawling, futuristic headquarters in Yonkers, NY, Weine and his team work to push out the reams of data that CR produces on everything from auto safety to exercise equipment. The headquarters themselves are one of the team's greatest assets: They contain all of the company's vaunted testing labs, and the communications team encourages journalists to come and take a tour.
Door after door opens to reveal rooms packed with abnormal numbers of mundane items - cordless phones, dishwashers, laptop computers - and workers scrutinizing everything from the number of threads hanging off clothing after multiple washes to what percentage of a stain remains on a plate after it has been run through a dishwasher repeatedly.
For food ratings, a row of chairs and computers sit glassed-off behind partitions, so that testers are totally cutoff from outside influence. For audio equipment tests, the lab features both a state-of-the-art soundproof room and a mock-up of an apartment to measure everyday acoustics. The tour leaves an overwhelming impression of attention to detail and seriousness of purpose - even if that purpose is measuring the numerical crispiness of a Doritos flavor.
In each of its main verticals, CR seeks to establish itself as a premier voice of authority. Communications manager Douglas Love, who is responsible for the auto division, has another advantage: a 327-acre, fully owned auto test track in Connecticut, where journalists can come experience the gear-grinding process firsthand. For those who can't attend, Love developed a virtual tour of the facility to reach as many in the media as possible.
"In an era when travel budgets are being cut by major outlets, how can you attract [journalists] up there?" asks Love. "We went on the road with it. We did presentations before the key auto journalist groups in the US."
Fundamentally, CR believes that its operations are impressive enough, and its aims pure enough, that a determined focus on simply getting the word out will be enough to keep the magazine as a firmly respected institution. And it seems to work.
The communications team must react to stories of the day to place expert commentary, proactively push out the magazine's all-exclusive content, and accommodate frequent prop-driven media requests that could require anything from a group of new cars attractively positioned in Times Square to a cart filled with boxes of cereal and an accompanying expert to rate them for the hungry public.
Lauren Hackett, the communications manager who oversees the Web site, among other things, calls the nonprofit magazine "a publicist's dream job," but admits that it sometimes requires her to be a jack-of-all-trades.
"It's sort of a broad range of categories," she says. "It's not like we only do cars, or we only do electronics. So we're dealing with a wide range of topics and, also, from the media, a wide range of interest levels."
Mixing old and new
To anyone interested in how an old media brand can make a seamless transition into modernity, CR is a fascinating case study. The magazine has well in excess of 4 million subscribers, and the Web site, launched a decade ago, has increased by a factor of 10 in that time, to 3 million subscribers.
And its media-relations-driven approach, fueled by solid content and a noticeable lack of a hidden agenda, continues to pay dividends, even as the company's own media platforms evolve.
Indeed, virtually every large media company is in the process of developing a system of communications that successfully encompasses both long-developed reputations and new-media imperatives. The latitude that communications departments receive in these tasks can vary widely.
At National Public Radio, VP of communications Andi Sporkin oversees marketing communications, talent relations, content licensing, internal communications, and branding work. A veteran of CBS and other mainstream media brands, Sporkin came in two years ago with the goal of professionalizing a department that was not performing well.
"It's coincidental that as NPR has been going through this massive growth, this is a department that has really invented itself," she says. "Fifty percent of what I handle is in the job description, and 50% of it is areas that I took over because it just wasn't being done in the organization."
Sporkin has worked to make the communications function an effective method for coordinating everything from day-to-day media outreach to personalized responses to listener inquiries. In fact, the one-to-one connection that much of NPR's audience feels with the network is perhaps its greatest strength. Sporkin and her team make a concerted effort to respond to e-mails from regular audience members, forging an affinity that pays off in fundraising and overall brand image.
"[In the past when] I said, 'I work at CBS,' nobody ever said, 'Oh my god, I love you.' And you get that with NPR," Sporkin says. "People choose to donate to public radio stations when they get the service for free. So what is that thing in their heads and their hearts that make them want to do that? That's the different part, the sense of connection with the press, with the public, with everybody."
NPR's communications efforts are focused on building general awareness - like CR, the company is confident that its product will sell itself. The network is investing in news at a time when other outlets are cutting budgets, and its wealth of content allows NPR to actively push stories out not only to large outlets, but also to large numbers of supportive bloggers, who become free advocates for the network's continuing success.
"Because there isn't some outlandish ad/marketing budget, the role of the communications department becomes much more important," she says. "People turn to us for information."
A competitive identity
Of course, some portions of the media universe are more competitive than others. While some brands are fortunate enough to evolve into their own niche, others are in a constant battle with direct competitors - a posture that is reflected in their communications strategies. At MSNBC, Nielsen ratings are a proxy measurement for brand management success, notes Jeremy Gaines, VP of communications.
In the cutthroat cable news business, rapid crisis management, constant monitoring of potential online scandals, and keeping an eye on the competition are imperatives. But they all must be subordinate to the establishment of a solid brand identity.
"We have been positioning ourselves over the last several years as the go-to place for political coverage," Gaines explains. That means constantly pushing out publicity for the network's two biggest "sub-brands," hosts Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann, while ensuring that the brand's image dovetails with its programming decisions. Winning the battle for supremacy of political coverage is easier when the presidential debates are in full swing on TV more than a year before the election.
"The '08 election basically started right after the '06 election," Gaines says. The confluence of politics and media - two new media sweet spots - make online communications that much more important.
"One thing that's come about in the past several years is the power of the blogs in terms of shaping coverage," he notes. "It's frankly amazing."
Billee Howard, EVP and head of global strategic media for Weber Shandwick, says the changing media environment reinforces three key needs for media brands: the need for outside validation of their authenticity, which comes in practice mainly from outside media coverage; the need to strengthen the identities of sub-brands in-side huge media company "uber-brands"; and the need to exploit the rise of media "uber-advocates" who reach multiple audiences on multiple platforms, like CNBC's Maria Bartiromo, who is seen in various outlets.
"The media marketplace is fragmenting itself because it's trying to provide content that matches up with the new landscape," Howard says. "PR can be used to communicate all of these different phases we're seeing, as opposed to broad-brush traditional advertising."
As Dan Klores Communications president Sean Cassidy points out, the Internet-driven fragmentation of media outlets has not changed the fact that the media is a highly consolidated industry - one that depends on brand building not only of individual outlets, but also of their corporate parents. That mutual dependence is what makes the whole media PR machine dance, whether new media or old.
"If you're trying to build brand equity in the parent company," Cassidy says, "you have to make sure that it's not entirely subordinate to the success of the more consumer-oriented [sub-]brand."
Still, a media entity's corporate imperative can never overtake its underlying mission of serving its audience. That bond will always drive communications strategy. As Weine asks rhetorically, "Is there any publication that doesn't have trust be the heart of their mantra?"
How to build a media brand
Like companies in every other industry, media outlets need coverage from other media outlets to validate them as legitimate and help to spread the word. The trick is ensuring that covering one outlet does not put another at a competitive disadvantage.
Direct audience interaction
Connections with readers, viewers, or listeners are best built through one-on-one interactions. A commitment to answering e-mails promptly and engaging the ideas of your audience can be the difference between a popular and unpopular media brand.
Blogs are not just covering media outlets, they are competing with them. Taking bloggers seriously can build invaluable online advocates. Getting too defensive or dismissive of new media can damage a brand irreparably.
Trust is a bigger factor than ever in strong media brands. Consumers have more choices than ever, so maintaining a high level of credibility is critical to survival. In a crisis, be fast, be completely open, and proactively reach out to all audiences to ensure that one mistake does not multiply into many.
After the reputation as a strong and credible journalistic outlet is established, it's important to ensure that the parent company's brand is also respected enough not to detract from its sub-brands. Good media outlets can help soften the image of media conglomerates.