An Open Letter To American Corporations: It’s Good Business (and Smart Marketing) To Support Quality Journalism

Brands and journalism need each other.

“Outbreaks have sparked riots and propelled public-health innovations, prefigured revolutions and redrawn maps.” The New Yorker, April 2020

“Nothing will be the same.” 

That’s the overwhelming takeaway I’ve heard from dozens of conversations I’ve had with C-suite leaders, physicians, policy experts and media professionals these past few weeks. 

When it comes to the business practices of large corporations, there’s no time to debate whether or when things might return to normal. If corporations truly stand for something – and nearly all of them claim to nowadays –  the time to prove it is right now, as the crisis deepens and consumers look to corporations to step up and lead. Companies that wait this crisis out will learn – quickly – that once loyal customers will readily turn to competitors who made it a priority to be in service during this extraordinary moment.

Communicating that message of service means marketing. With that in mind, here’s a list of fundamental truths given today’s media landscape:

  • Context matters more than ever. Every customer is consumed with understanding the threat and implications of the pandemic. High quality, trusted information is critical.
  • Given this new context, marketing messaging can and must shift toward communicating how a company is adding value to society and its customers. Companies must recognize the severity of our times – brand messaging becomes serious and information dense. 
  • The majority of global marketers have frozen or cancelled their marketing plans, and all are struggling to identify and roll out relevant new messaging.  
  • When those messages are ready, marketers will find that traditional vehicles for messaging have shrunk or disappeared, or seem frivolous and out of context. No NBA or MLB, no Olympics, no live entertainment, and most advertising-driven television production has been suspended. 
  • Stuck inside and online, consumers are glued to news outlets, and have retreated to streaming video for escape – and the lion’s share of those services are ad free. Those with advertising models (Pluto, Roku, etc) have previously been viewed as nascent and unproven. This will change, but at present the connected TV sector lacks the inventory to satisfy the marketing needs of the world’s biggest brands.
  • Pushing context-driven marketing messaging on audience-driven services like Instagram or Facebook Newsfeed will come across as tone deaf. Again, context is now king. Where can serious, service-driven marketing messaging find the right context?   

Turns out, there is a massive media channel that lives in a serious and information-dense context every minute of every day. This channel has nearly unlimited inventory, deep and consistent consumer engagement, and is eager for partnership with brand marketers.

This channel is called news. And if marketers are smart, they’ll realize that running their messaging in high quality news channels isn’t just good business, it’s good for society as well.

For decades, marketers have been eschewing journalism as a serious marketing channel, claiming that brands can’t be built adjacent to coverage of plane crashes, natural disasters, politics, or other staples of the news business. This misguided philosophy has led marketing agencies to create massive blacklists of terms like “Trump,” “guns,” and now, “COVID.” These lists direct tens of billions in programmatic advertising away from local and national news outlets, and toward “safer” channels like live sports on television and Facebook or YouTube online.  

But it’s time for that to change. Perhaps the most important element of society’s response to the global pandemic lies in the curation and communication of high quality information, and calling that truth to those in power. Who but journalists will hold the governor of Georgia to account for mistruths, or the President of the United States? This has always been the role of journalism – and despite decades of declining revenues, most news outlets are rising to the challenge. Traffic and engagement to news channels has skyrocketed since the COVID outbreak – at The Recount*, we’ve seen spikes of up to 10-20 times our normal viewership. 

It’s time for brands to rethink news as a marketing channel. This doesn’t mean brands should abandon their metrics of success – but forward thinking leaders in the industry have already proven that news channels can offer more engaged and receptive audiences. A friend and industry leading marketer (who prefers to not be named) has led the way in this regard, investing at least one in three of his media dollars in news channels last year. He tells me that not only are news audiences influential and affluent, they are five times more likely to recall advertising than general audiences, and six times more likely to engage with ads when they recall them.

Right now, we need more leaders like him to step up and support the news business. And it’s not just good business: journalists are keeping people informed at one of the most important and perilous times of our history. As our finest corporations bend to the work of finding ways to be in service to their customers, they can and should partner with the one media channel that has been committed to serve the public since its inception: Journalism. 

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*Yes, this post can be seen as self serving, and I’m fine with that. I’m convinced that the thesis is sound regardless of my position at Recount Media.

 

 

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