Businesses must fill the gaps left by a diminished news industry

Richard Edelman: CCOs must lead the charge to Go Direct and provide access to quality information

This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer found that the mainstream media is read by less than half of people in the United States and Western Europe, and that the media is the least-trusted institution globally. This is the result of a combination of forces: politicization, the pollution of the news ecosystem with disinformation, people’s belief that the media is biased and doesn’t speak to them, and the shrinking number of newsrooms, especially at the local level.

As communicators, we have adapted to accommodate the shorter news cycle and reduced news staffing and to help fill some of the gaps. We’ve added video clips and GIFs to press releases. We amplify our earned campaigns with paid media. We’ve added sponsored content, brand influencers, Facebook Live broadcasts, podcasts and CEO forums to our tool box.

But it’s not enough. To confront the reality of a diminished mainstream media, businesses must reconsider their approach to communications.

It is time to Go Direct. Every company should become its own media company. Every organization, public and private, should have a news operation that speaks directly to stakeholders through its owned and social channels, and through its leaders and employees. And chief communications officers must be the ones guiding this change.

I propose a new structure—not intended to supplant traditional media, but to supplement it—comprised of two equally weighted arms: Promote and Educate.

The Promote arm should tell the company’s story directly, practicing what we at Edelman call collaborative journalism. It should be led by a team of experienced journalists who go outside company walls to gather sources and stories. The goal is story mining, development and dissemination with the highest level of accuracy and impact.

The Promote arm should have online communities that encourage direct conversations between the company and its stakeholders and that provide forums for employee and customer conversations. Subject matter experts should be encouraged to freely engage with social media communities. Company thought leaders and executives should be visible and engaging, speaking to employees first, then to everyone else.

The Promote function is essential for companies in low-interest categories that are no longer covered sufficiently by mainstream media. The content it produces will help investors measure performance, employees to make career choices, consumers to make purchasing decisions, and NGOs to evaluate supply chain accountability.

The Educate arm has a civic mission, delving into local issues that matter to employees and the community and will work to fill the news hole left by disappearing local media outlets.

The Educate arm should be structured as an independent nonprofit foundation, supported by the company. The local news team’s governing board should include a government representative, an industry leader, an NGO expert, and one or more highly qualified former journalist. The Educate unit should generate original content and aggregate important news and analysis from other sources.

Of course, the very idea of a corporation becoming an objective news source will be challenged. Can we set up a structure for accountability journalism, the expensive and time-consuming process of ferreting out the truth? The ultimate test of this model will be the Educate arm’s freedom to criticize the sponsor company.

Go Direct is not corporate journalism and it’s not a replacement for mainstream media. It is a way for the business community to help. At a time when truth is under attack, businesses must continue to support and defend the media’s role as the standard bearer for fact gathering and dissemination. It is our responsibility to help restore civil discourse. We can do this best by advancing the cause of truth through providing access to quality information.

The ultimate goal of Go Direct is to create an information safety net by informing employees and helping to ensure an educated populace. Business must lead this charge — 72% of Trust Barometer respondents said they trust their employer, well above government or media. This is an existential and urgent challenge for CCOs. There is no time to waste. Let’s get going.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO of Edelman.

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