Back in January, I wrote an article for Editor & Publisher magazine about the brand crisis being experienced by the newspaper media business. The article was very difficult to write without creating a white paper. Branding is a much-misunderstood concept, and to address the issue in a concise manner, I needed to oversimplify.

Ultimately, I made my apologies and approached the topic from the relatively superficial perspective of creative, effective messaging strategies regarding the role of the media and what they offer to news and advertising clients. In the article, I provided insights by using lessons drawn from Google, Facebook, and Chevrolet.

Good branding involves inclusion of the local community.
Good branding involves inclusion of the local community.

However, branding is not what you say in your advertising. It is not the slogan you adopt.

In her February INMA blog post, my colleague Cathy Colliver presented “Your media brand is who you are and what you do.” As the title of her blog post suggests, Colliver grasps that, while you can express your brand in your messaging, promotion is just one element of an overarching brand strategy.

Branding runs deep. It is deeply embedded in your culture and in how you interact with your employees, your customers, and your community. Colliver’s blog post provides examples of branding reflected in the behaviour of news media organisations when responding to natural disasters in their communities.

After my article appeared, several media executives approached me to discuss what I felt newspapers needed to do to change their image and improve the way their companies are viewed in the marketplace. I think some wanted a “silver bullet” solution — an ad or promotional campaign they could roll out that would solve all their problems. Branding doesn’t work that way.

In teaching, I share what I consider to be the most comprehensive single-sentence definition of branding I can provide:

“The goal of branding is to maximise the effective use of resources across the entire organisation, yielding the greatest net benefit to the entire organisation.”

This statement, while not technically a definition, speaks to the scope of branding, especially within the organisation. It also speaks to the significance of branding to the overall success of an organisation.

But now, rather than speaking philosophically or academically about branding, I will actually tell you what I think good branding would look like, at least for a news media organisation in the United States.

To start off, there needs to be “unity of purpose” within an organisation to achieve the goal of branding as stated above. Branding requires an aspirational, inspirational, and motivational vision-mission statement expressing a desirable vision for the future and a “higher calling” than mere profitability/business success.

Here is an excerpt on this topic from the aforementioned Editor & Publisher article:

“Google’s mission is ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.’ Facebook’s mission is ‘to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.’ These mission statements constitute the foundation of organisational unity of purpose for two of the leading information-related businesses in America — businesses that specialise in helping consumers access information and communities of interest, respectively. Virtually every employee at either company can quote their mission on demand and speak to what it means.

“A good mission statement will be aspirational (aim high, set ambitious, desirable goals), inspirational (evoke emotional buy-in internally and externally), and motivational (guide actions by identifying goals). Believe it or not, the goals that most motivate employees are those that represent a ‘higher calling.’

People — both employees and customers — deep down want to feel that they are a part of something that will somehow make the world a better place. Again, read the Google and Facebook mission statements above. They do not speak to market share, world dominance, or profitability, but they are ambitious and inspiring and speak to improving the lives of others. As Goethe said, ‘Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.’”

I recently visited a media Web site that utilised a mission statement I think rises to that level. At the home page of the Oklahoman Media Company, you will find the following:

“We are Oklahomans. Our goal is to help make our state a better place to live, work, and raise a family.”

In the interest of full disclosure, this statement is very similar to the brand commitment developed in 2007 at the media company where I worked in New Jersey:

“Star-Ledger & NJ.com will strive to advance the standard and quality of life in New Jersey in both real and perceived terms in a manner consistent with our First Amendment responsibilities.”

I am not sure when the Oklahoman Media Company adopted its statement, but, in my judgment, it is the better-evolved, more intimate, and more inspirational statement of the two. It says to its audience, “We are your fellow citizens and neighbours, and our purpose is to make our world and our lives a better reality for all of us.”

So how does this translate into “unity of purpose?”

Let’s start in the advertising sales department. How do your account executives “make our state a better place to live, work, and raise a family?”

Let’s stop and think about media sales teams and motivation. Too often the sales team is working in a high pressure, quota-driven environment where the focus is on revenue growth versus prior year and/or special incentives to sell the latest and greatest sales tool/programme/platform du jour.

What if the team’s mission was customer-focused and mission-centric? I know it sounds absurd (sarcasm intended), but what if the mission of the advertising/marketing sales team was “to make their clients more successful?”

Picture an account executive starting his day or work week with the conviction that his mission is to determine how to best help his clients achieve their business goals.

It isn’t a huge leap to shift from “how do I sell more of the media tools and services my employer has given me to work with?” to “how can I use the tools and services at my disposal to make my client more successful?” Which perspective is more gratifying? Which contributes to “making our state/community a better place?”

If your team members focus on solving their clients’ problems, they will ultimately be more effective at generating revenue. They will also feel better about what they do. When the client success story isn’t how big a contract the client signed, but how successful the client was because of his investment in your products and services, your sales team’s morale, motivation, and productivity will all improve.

I can guarantee you this shift in culture from sales-driven to customer-focused works. I’ve seen it happen. It’s a simple, but not easy, transition. It’s a shift in culture, orientation, thinking, and brand.

But in the end, your clients will view your organisation as a vital partner in their success. Read a little more on this idea in an earlier blog post, “Focus on client success to ensure your success.”

Next, let’s look at your newsroom/content team. I’ve observed all kinds of focus among journalists and feature writers. I’ve seen management focus on pageviews and awards, and I’ve seen focus on advocacy and storytelling.

But I’ve also seen the response from journalists who are told their employer is trying to effect change for the better in their community. Seriously speaking, newspaper media have always had (and rarely understood) an unparalleled capacity to effect change in the local community. Even subtle changes in how breaking news is presented, what questions a reporter might ask, and what details are included can have a catalytic effect over time on the community you serve.

A newsroom commitment to “making our state/community a better place” does not relegate the news team to playing cheerleader, carrying pom-poms, and promoting only good news that will make people feel content about where they live.

In the United States, the vision of our founding fathers was that newspapers and the free press would help create a society of “informed and involved” citizens. Over a century later, Chicago Evening Post journalist Finley Peter Dunne, writing as the fictional character Mr. Dooley, stated “The role of newspapers … is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Both of these visions of the role of the news media have merit and speak to the credibility most essential to a news organisation. And they both speak to the capacity of a newsroom to work toward making the community they cover “a better place to live, work, and raise a family.”

Think again of the motivation and morale of your news team. Is the burning question team members have to answer at the end of the day “How many pageviews did I generate today?” Or is it “How does my work contribute to making the community a better place? How am I making a difference?”

You can generate pageviews by publishing bikini photos and salacious rumours, but you’re not doing much to make the world a better place. Potentially, you’re accomplishing the opposite.

A truly engaged, brand-and-mission-centric newsroom working to “inform and involve” doesn’t cover the homeless issue, the issue of hunger, the flood or the fire without asking “Did we provide the community with a call to action? Did we provide the information it needs to contribute to solving or mitigating the problem?”

Too often the media coverage on an issue or event stops at “inform” and fails to invite/urge citizens to get “involved.”

The question to ask at the end of the day is not “Did we provide award-winning coverage of the news of the day?” It should be something like “Did we provide the community with the coverage it needs to make tomorrow a better day?”

The media sales department should be concerned with the success of the client. So should the news/content team. But its client is the community, and the success and health of the community should be paramount.

Activating your community takes many forms. There is the obvious call to public service and volunteerism in support of worthy causes. But the health of a community should be addressed in many ways. It can certainly be addressed literally: What are you doing to make your community healthier?

And the mission of “making our state/community a better place to live” can and should also be addressed in so many subtler ways. How do you make the community aware of cultural and entertainment opportunities, for instance? Do you create opportunities for your audience to plan ahead, letting it know what’s coming for children and couples, families and seniors, sports fans and devotees of the arts or the great outdoors?

The “inform and involve” mission can make the community a better place to live by providing food and shelter to the needy. It can also make the community a better place to live by getting people out of their homes and involved at the theater, sports arena, concert hall, and soccer field.

Again, most media organisations are providing coverage of some sort in these areas but most have lost sight of why. If the newsroom can take some credit for getting hundreds or even thousands out to walk for a cause, vote their choice in an election, eat or live healthier, and enjoy the many amenities (arts, parks, activities, concerts, museums) offered in their community, then it has acted in a brand-and-mission-centric manner.

Most media organisations today have an audience development team that focuses on the digital and physical distribution and the delivery and development of content. The team’s role in the pursuit of “making our state/community a better place to live” is to ensure the members of the community get the news and content that is most vital and relevant to them.

And that includes advertising content in both print and digital form. Its scope includes creating new products and communities of interest, bringing people of like mind and interest together, and providing not only the media vehicles and social media platforms that serve them, but also expanding into events where the community (or communities) they serve can engage in the real versus virtual world.

For an example of brand-and-mission-centric event development, I would point to the first public event (2007) involving the Star-Ledger’s popular food writer, Pete Genovese. Genovese agreed to work with us on a festival for foodies in search of the Garden State’s (aka New Jersey’s) best crab cake. We hosted the event at Monmouth Race Course (an advertising client) and featured a dozen or so popular restaurants (most, not all, also clients).

We expected a good crowd but no one — especially the race course management — anticipated the outcome. In just five hours, more than US$24,000 worth of crab cakes were sold to thousands of attendees. They all wanted to meet Genovese in person and talk food, restaurants, and recipes.

Paid attendance at Monmouth jumped 30% that day, and folks who had never seen a horse race were introduced to a new leisure pastime. 

So I have provided examples here on what I think is essentially the fundamental brand commitment of the free press in the United States and how that brand commitment would play out in the sales, news/ content, and audience development areas of the media organisation. I could go on, but this blog post is already too long.

Please follow up with your comments, criticisms, and observations. I’d be interested in your perspectives!