Thought Leadership in the Age of Fake News

thought leadership, fake news, Elon musk, Chris Brogan, Doris Kearns Goodwin,

One of the traditionally best routes to positive brand identity, media exposure, and best of all—public trust, is if the founder, CEO, or public face of an entity you represent is, or has the potential to be, what we call a “thought leader.”

“Thought leader” is a jargon-y term, somewhat overused, but succinctly descriptive. A thought leader is a trusted expert in his/her field, often called upon to discuss innovation, best practices, or even the future of said field.

For example, Elon Musk is a thought leader in electric vehicles and space travel; Chris Brogan is a thought leader in marketing and social media; Douglas Brinkley and Doris Kearns Goodwin are thought leaders on American presidents.

Which brings us to the topic of “fake news.” To be clear, fake news isn’t new. While it is exacerbated by the immediacy—and the anonymity—of the Internet, fake news is not a product of the Internet. From Anecdoa to pasquinades to canards, fake news has been with us pretty much since humans could whisper and wink.

In the past, however, we all recognized the difference between stories about Sasquatch reigning terror across the Yukon and the Taliban reigning terror across Afghanistan. Now, we have honest-to-God fabrications finding their way into the news cycle, as well as people with traditionally venerated bully pulpits claiming any news they don’t like is fake—regardless of who reported it or how un-fake it really is.

Setting aside that entire mess, let’s focus for a moment on what that means for PR professionals. We spend much of our time trying to maintain or promote clients as thought leaders in media outlets that once were trusted sources but now are barraged with charges that they are purveyors of fake news.

Entering into any public conversation these days is not for the faint of heart. The topic could be “The Beauty of Roses” and before you can say “stop and smell them,” someone has posted that “Roses are a faux romantic symbol of the Princess trope foisted on young girls as a means of oppression. Boycott Roses!” And so it goes.

In a recent industry survey, 91% of journalists believe the public trusts them less in 2017 than in years past. With the public so angry and media under relentless attack, will people see our clients as reputable thought leaders or as suspicious co-conspirators with alleged fake news outlets? Should we still try to have our clients featured as thought leaders in media outlets?

Yes.

But let’s not stop there. It’s still a good thing for clients to be quoted in media coverage of a topic that’s germane to their expertise, thereby achieving third party validation of their role as thought leaders. The key is to be selective in where you place them.

  • Look for media outlets that retain the public trust, that maintain “standards and practices,” and that maintain clear lines between reportorial, editorial, and sales.
  • Look for bloggers who are themselves recognized leaders in their area of expertise.
  • Avoid outlets with a known political bent (unless that’s your audience).
  • Avoid outlets that are “pay to play.”

The other key is to be prolific.

  • Create think pieces (beyond blogs) for the company’s website and newsletters.
  • Write articles for the company’s LinkedIn page.
  • Create “white papers” on issues concerning your clients’ industries and professions.

As we’ve seen, anyone can dispute facts they don’t like. That doesn’t make those facts any less real. If your clients have something valuable to say, help them say it and help them find the right audience.

Rage Against the Arts & Humanities…Again.

National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, NEA, NEH, Maine Arts Commission, City of Portland Public Art Committee, Creative Portland, Portland Symphony Orchestra, PORT Opera, Portland Stage Company, The Telling Room, Terra Moto Inc., University of Southern Maine

We are living in an age of rage, perpetrated by both ends of the political spectrum, and during which, we are about to launch another battle over the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Entrenched interest have trampled upon and fought over these agencies more than The Ardennes.

It’s hard to believe this nation’s cultural agencies were born from a united, bi-partisan vision; established not to solve a problem, but to help us create, expand, and care for our national patrimony. Every time a fortification of bipartisan support is built to ensure their existence, it is breached by those bent on finding a boogeyman, a fundraising mechanism, a wedge issue, or an Internet meme that can rally the crowd.

It’s easy to demonize federal agencies. They’re just more bureaucracy, filled with listless civil servants indifferent to taxpayer need, right? But what if the clichés are wrong? What if the agencies on the chopping block are actually bare bones, efficiently run, professionally staffed sources of transformative and catalytic funding that enhances communities and changes lives?

Here’s another “what if.” What if we stopped disparaging and dismissing public institutions that deserve celebration and investment instead?

For five years I served as Communications Director for the National Endowment for the Arts. Since leaving the NEA I have served on several NEA grant review panels. I chair an organization that receives NEA support. I have intimate, first-hand knowledge of how it works, and here’s what I know:

The federal employees at the NEA come to work every day dedicated to responsibly distributing funding to regional, state, and local arts agencies—the ones that contribute culturally and economically to our communities.

In the last five years, arts organizations in Maine received more than $5.4 million dollars in NEA funding. Arts organizations in Portland received just under a half million dollars. The Maine Arts Commission received more than $3.6 million—funding that was then re-granted to local arts organizations around the state. The catalytic effect of these dollars is indisputable.

Portland Ovations, a stalwart of Maine’s cultural community, and whose board I chair, received $155,000 in NEA funding during the last five years. In that time, Ovations has contributed $12.5 million to the greater Portland economy. That’s just one non-profit arts organization. Other Portland-area entities funded directly by the NEA include:

  • City of Portland Public Art Committee
  • Creative Portland
  • Portland Symphony Orchestra
  • PORT Opera
  • Portland Stage Company
  • The Telling Room
  • Terra Moto Inc.
  • University of Southern Maine

The NEA’s annual appropriation is only .004 percent of the federal budget. Defunding the NEA is not about the money. It’s about the symbolism.

There remains a segment of our citizenry—and political establishment—that is highly skeptical of any pronouncement that issues from the arts community concerning the necessity of public funding for art. It serves no purpose to debate why this is so, to argue over whether this skepticism is at all justifiable. It’s enough to recognize this distrust is out there, and it’s not uncommon for it to be held by people not necessarily ill disposed to the arts. Indeed, they may well be ardent supporters.

Within this segment are two camps, those who object to federal funding for the arts because they believe the non-profit arts should be left to sink or swim in the marketplace, and those who object because they believe that the NEA (and NEH) symbolize the reign of the elites over “the rest of us” at the taxpayer expense of all of us.

To both camps, defunding the NEA “sends a message.” Indeed, it does.

To the former argument, I offer language that Congress included in its “Declaration of Purpose” that accompanied the legislation authorizing the NEA and NEH: “While no government can call a great artist or scholar into existence, it is necessary and appropriate for the federal government to help create and sustain not only a climate encouraging freedom of thought, imagination, and inquiry, but also the material conditions facilitating the release of this creative talent.” Lifting non-profit arts from the market place is about understanding value versus price.

To the latter argument I offer the millions of children across the country and the thousands here in Maine who benefit from NEA supported arts and arts education programs. When Merrill Auditorium is filled with students clutching their free copy of a new book and enjoying their very first live performance at Portland Ovations or who realize they love music when hearing the Portland Symphony; when refugee children record their thoughts in a book at The Telling Room—in short, when lives are transformed by art, there is nothing elitist about it. Funding the NEA may be the most populist thing the federal government does, by making art accessible to all the people.

It’s disheartening to be fighting this battle again, especially when it’s presented as a false choice: pay for infrastructure and defense or pay for art. I worked at the Arts Endowment when a Republican president found a way to do both and enthusiastically signed into law a $21.1 million dollar increase for both the NEA and the NEH.

Despite the current climate in Washington, it’s my hope that Congress resists erroneous symbolism, and instead embraces the transformative power of art and our government’s rightful role in supporting it.

Felicia K. Knight is President of The Knight Canney Group, served as Communications Director for the NEA from 2003 – 2008 under Chairman Dana Gioia, and is President of the board of directors for Portland Ovations.

 

 

Five Christmas Clichés to Send Over the River and…You Know

Christmas cliches, Santa Claus, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Tis' the Season, The Knight Canney Group, public relations

We get it. It’s a busy time of year. You may be trying to get everything done so you can take time off over the holidays. Or maybe the client is insisting on a “funny parody” to promote an event or product. Whatever it is that’s pushing you toward any of these clichés, resist—and instead insist on a little more imagination. Be firm and say “no” to:

 

  1. Any parody of any line from “A Visit From St. Nicholas.” Commonly referred to as “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Clement Moore’s poem has been parodied to sell everything from mobile phone plans to men’s underwear. (Nothing says “Christmas” like a pitch to package the family jewels.)
  1. It’s beginning to look a lot like… We love Meredith Willson’s holiday song, but we don’t love it as an intro to the weather forecast or copy for a department store sale. It’s tired and uninspired. So, no. Just no. (And helpful tip: “a lot” in any context is two words: a and lot. Never alot.)
  1. The white stuff. While we’re mentioning weather, please just call it snow.
  1. The Grinch who stole… the money for the homeless shelter, the donated toys for tots, the wise men from the crèche—just fill in the blank. Sad stories all, made all the sadder by the same words we heard and read last year. And the year before.
  1. ’Tis the season. This is, hands down, the laziest of holiday copy writing. Whether it’s promotional, sales or news copy, anyone older than 12 who uses “’tis the season” is guilty of gross lack of imagination. ’Tis the season? ’Tis the reason you’re fired.

You’re probably thinking, “Wow, what a Grinch!” But no, we’re not stealing anything other than the opportunity for taking the easy way out in holiday copywriting. The principles that work all year round, work especially well during the holidays: tell a story, keep it simple, make it personal, know your audience.

One other helpful tip—no one actually likes fruitcake.

 

 

Is the Kim Kardashian Brand in Trouble?

Kim Kardashian, Public relations, Kardashian brand, Kardashian paris robbery, Kanye West

What does it mean when a popular brand is in distress and a considerable percentage of public response ranges from “It’s probably a publicity stunt” to “That’s what you get for showing off?”

As we all know now, Kim Kardashian, at whose PR savvy we have previously marveled, was recently the victim of an armed robbery while in Paris for Fashion Week.

Kardashian, with 48.3 million followers on Twitter and 84.2 million on Instagram, is the antithesis of shy. She generously shares every moment of her life with her fans and they with her. You may well wonder why she has fans, but that would just reveal your card-carrying membership in the Society of Crankypants.

While her reported ordeal at the hands of masked gunmen who tied her up and helped themselves to $9 million of her well publicized jewelry did elicit an outpouring of sympathy for the mother of two small children, it also unleashed a storm of scolding and outright skepticism. Everything from “Who travels with $9 million worth of jewelry?” to “Well, you know, Kanye West is $53 million in debt…”

Despite the tens of millions of fans, Kim Kardashian’s is a love/hate brand. Her fans love her. And, as they say, the haters gonna hate. In this era of living out loud and bilious anonymity, where everyone’s a pundit (yes, the irony of writing this in a blog abounds), love is all around, until it isn’t.

Is the Kim Kardashian brand in trouble? Does her crisis communications team need to swing into high gear? (The Paris Tourism bureau’s certainly does.) Will her new status as crime victim eclipse her image as CEO in charge of her fame and growing fortune?

Probably not.

With a net worth pegged at $51million derived from reality TV, and a mobile app, her savvy goes beyond being a PR machine. Her brand will withstand the raised eyebrows and the doubters, and likely will emerge stronger than ever—especially if the culprits are found and brought to justice.

One piece of advice for Kim: Get a new security firm. The one you have now has a real PR problem.

This Week’s PR Winners & Losers

PR Winners and Losers, New England Patriots, Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Garoppolo, David Ortiz, Galaxy Note 7, The Sugar Association, Wells Fargo

It’s been such a good week for it, we thought we’d return to that favorite format of PR bloggers, the listicle. Here are this week’s Winners & Losers.

 

Winners

  1. New England Patriots

With Tom Brady warming the bench under a dubious suspension and Rob Gronkowski out with a hamstring injury, the Patriots—the team everyone outside of New England loves to hate—led by second string quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, beat the heavily favored Arizona Cardinals 23-21.

  1. New England Patriots (Hey, we’re a New England Public Relations firm)

Because this may be one of the best things we’ve seen this week.

  1. David Ortiz (It’s important to stick with a theme)

The beloved Red Sox DH hit his 536th home run to tie with Mickey Mantle.

Losers

  1. The Galaxy Note 7

When a consumer product spontaneously explodes, that’s never good. While the combustible phones were recalled several weeks ago, this week, it was determined that a manufacturing flaw in the battery is the cause, allowing for another whole news cycle of news detailing the recall and the dropping stock prices.

  1. The Sugar Association (and Harvard University)

Who says saturated fats are bad for you? Turns out, the American sugar industry paid scientists at Harvard to publish a study that took any blame for ill health effects off of sugar and pushed it on to saturated fats. That’s not to say that a diet of burgers and fries is heart healthy, but the revelation of the flawed study suggests, “five decades of research into the role of nutrition and heart disease, including many of today’s dietary recommendations, may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.” The sugar industry took a very low road toward winning the public relations war.

  1. Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo will pay $185 million to the federal government plus restitution to customers after years of pushing customers into high penalty, costly financial products that they neither needed, nor requested. But wait, there’s more! The executive who heads up the community banking division, Carrie Tolstedt, who in part oversees the retail banking and credit card operations part of the company, which was responsible for the fraudulent accounts is retiring—and taking with her a $125 million payout. Can you say, “poor optics?”