Yiannopoulos and Twitter: Where do you stand?

Twitter is in a difficult spot. It has permanently removed Milo Yiannopoulos, the tech editor of Breitbart, after he sent numerous tweets were inflammatory and, frankly, racist, targeting SNL and Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones.

Is the Twitter ouster of Yiannopoulos an affront to free speech?

Yiannopoulos had been temporarily removed from Twitter in the past for abusive tweets and the social media giant decided that calling Jones in the movie “a black character worthy of a minstrel show” was too much.

One of the issues here is free speech. Yiannopoulos, who is a self-proclaimed gay conservative, claims he is being made a scapegoat for the hundreds, maybe millions, of offensive tweets sent out each day.

He could be right and I admit it’s a difficult issue to parse. But I don’t think this is totally a free speech issue. It’s also a brand one. All companies must respond to change and what their target audience wants. That doesn’t mean you flip your brand over and over but that you have a brand that is sensitive to market forces that impact your target audience.

Twitter’s response to Yiannopoulos: Enough is enough.

Twitter is my go-to social media platform. (You can find me at @BrandGenius.) And I admit that most of my news is gathered there. (Well, that and NPR.) I follow reporters, other strategists like me, and many news outlets.

I have also been aware of the Wild West nature of tweeting. I see responses to tweets that are extremely offensive, rude and outright ignorant. To defend free speech means you have to take the good with the bad, right?

But I’ve also sensed a rising disgust among many users over those kinds of tweets. People are coming to the defense of the original tweet (the non-offensive one) and expressing their repugnance to the comments. In a way, by deleting Yiannopoulos, Twitter is responding to its audience. It may sound like censorship but I think it’s more of the equivalent of making sure the adult gift shops are not located in your neighborhood. Yiannopoulos can go to other social media platforms, but civility will remain here.

I thought about this more when considering the potential ouster of Roger Ailes at FOX News after reports of numerous incidents of sexual misconduct. No matter your politics, you have to admit FOX News has been a brilliant construction that still leads cable news ratings (especially during the current Republican convention). Ailes has been the architect of that.

But FOX News has chosen not to stand by him. Maybe there are other factors involved in his ouster, but my gut tells me that FOX News (and the Murdochs, who own it) are responding to a change in the market. More and more of us are opposing sexual misconduct. To maintain its relevancy, FOX News has made a business decision.

That’s what Twitter has done here. It has basically made Yiannopoulos an example that states that courtesy should be the rule of the platform. Twitter said it permanently deleted Yiannopouls because he violated “rules prohibiting participating in or inciting targeted abuse of individuals.”

To me, that’s the Twitter brand remaining relevant.

Gannett wants to buy Tribune

The news that Gannett, owners of USA Today, is offering to buy Tribune Publishing should not come off as a surprise. Tribune, which owns the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune among other assets, had been clinging to life in the new digital world.

Sadly, Tribune Publishing should take Gannett’s offer.

You don’t need me to tell you how difficult newspapers have found it staying relevant when instant news comes over our social media apps and fewer people actually have a subscription to a newspaper.

Newsrooms nationwide are smaller, with half the news staff or smaller than they had years ago. Reporters are generally younger because they are cheaper. We’ve seen newspapers shut down, consolidate with another media group or become online only. A newspaper that a colleague of mine once wrote for downsized so much that it rented out most of its building and moved the newsroom into the cafeteria. True story.

It’s the way of today’s world.

Gannett has survived while others have not.

Gannett has been one of the few that have survived, primarily on the back of USA Today. It has firmly established itself a position, as the newspaper that gives you national headlines (just like social media does) that targets those who are away from home. You can’t go to any hotel in America and not find a USA Today.

Tribune, meanwhile, has seen half of its value decline in the last nine months, while Gannett has gained 16% in value over that same time. (It also owns newspapers in Phoenix, Indianapolis and Cincinnati, among many others.) It has also been one of the few media giants to understand how to have a strong online presence. It has a brand.

What makes this offer so compelling is that Tribune stated it has no interest in discussing the offer. I can understand the reluctance. Before the newspaper crash hit, those who worked in the industry thought of Gannett as superficial in terms of reporting news. If it bought your paper, it meant that investigative reporting was a thing of the past. Editors and reporters scoffed at the Gannett model.

Sadly, that’s where we are when it comes to the media today, as I’ve stated before. There are very few places that truly dig into issues, and they tend to come from the e-magazine side or from a giant like The New York Times.

It’s a good and honorable battle Tribune is fighting but Gannett is counting on Tribune making the realization that it can only survive and be relevant if it adopts some of the Gannett strategies and tactics.

As disappointing as it may be to those old ink-stained reporters, Gannett is probably right.

Rolling Stone rape story a try at relevancy

The damning report from the Columbia Journalism School on the Rolling Stone rape story that outlined disgusting events on the University of Virginia campus is in one way no shock to me.

It’s not just that investigators found nothing to support the reports or even that Rolling Stone started to back away from the story after the allegations started falling apart.

No, the report is not shocking to me because Rolling Stone, while an important touchstone during my teen and young adult years, has recently had trouble being relevant in today’s media-saturated world. It was only natural that, with declining relevance, the editors jumped too eagerly on a hot-button subject.

Rolling Stone didn't complete its reporting.
Rolling Stone didn’t complete its reporting.

Rolling Stone used to be home to the best album reviews, scathing investigative pieces and unusual voices like Hunter S. Thompson. It was part of the cultural zeitgeist.

Today, the publication, by some reports, has fewer subscribers than either InStyle, Esquire and Good Housekeeping. (Admittedly, subscription numbers can be misleading when you account for Internet readership. But the point still stands.) It is about a relevant today as the eight-track tape.

I’m not suggesting that Rolling Stone intentionally slanted the story to make readers recoil at the actions described in the article. I actually think honest mistakes were made in an attempt to latch onto a story that promised to crack open the very real issue of campus rape.

Because how else can you explain the reporter not talking to the friends of “Jackie,” who said in later statements that they always thought Jackie was fabricating the story? Or even talk to the alleged rapists?

I think Rolling Stone and its editors were always on the lookout for a story that would tap into the cultural discussion, as they should be. When developing this story, I imagine there was a rush to recapture the edgy reporting it was long known for.

But in reclaiming a brand, the editors and the reporter failed to do their job properly. As the report itself said, Rolling Stone “did not do enough…to close the gaps in (the) reporting.”

It was, in a small way, an over-extension by the magazine to reach back and reclaim brand equity. It jumped too quickly.

Brian Williams lie is a result of NBC brand

We Americans are a forgiving bunch. When scandals hit, they usually blow over if they don’t linger. As John Huston said in the movie Chinatown, “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

Which brings us to NBC new anchor Brian Williams, who has admitted to lying about being under fire in a helicopter in Iraq in 2003. (A good timeline is here.) He said the copter came under fire from an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), which was evidently not true.

It's not all his fault.
It’s not all his fault.

Now Williams is taking a leave of absence, saying he has become too much a part of the news and may not be back for several days. It’s the right strategy as the news cycle spins so fast that the leave may make many viewers forget about the whole thing.

But I’m not so sure. While we don’t live in the same era as Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley anymore, the news anchor position – especially on a network evening news show – has its own brand equities. Foremost among them is honesty.

Once that public trust is broken, it’s hard to get back – especially if it’s the paramount brand equity in your arsenal. It’d be like if Nike shoes started causing injuries (so you couldn’t “Just Do It”).

That’s not to say Williams won’t be back and continue his career as the NBC News anchor, but I’d suggest keeping track of the ratings. NBC News, which also oversees The Today Show, Meet The Press, MSNBC and CNBC, has been under attack recently as all outlets have seen their ratings drop. The mishandling of Ann Curry’s cruel ouster from The Today Show put it behind ABC’s Good Morning America for morning TV, for instance. And there are other examples.

There’s an inherent distrust factor going on at NBC News that the Williams lie simply ties a ribbon on. I have ranted about the failure of mainstream media to be nothing more than entertainment, celebrity-chasing entities that value personality over information. Argument over truth.

The Williams lie, an attempt to bolster his own image, is a result of that cynical culture. If Williams and NBC want to regain the public trust, it should change the whole NBC News brand.

Only then will the apology (and return) of Williams make a difference.

The State of CNN

I tuned into Tuesday’s President’s State of the Union Address and found myself totally disappointed. Not in the speech itself, that value judgment depends completely on your political bent, but on the coverage.

For whatever reason, I tuned to CNN. I just wanted to witness the speech and then flip the TV off. This speech is as close the US gets to royal pageantry. And I enjoy seeing the Supreme Court Justices, Joint Chiefs and legislators in one room. I love it when the Sargent of Arms announces the President’s arrival. I don’t care if his name is Bush, Clinton, Reagan or Obama, it gives me a bit of a thrill.

I'm done listening to these blowhards.
I’m done listening to these blowhards.

However, I had to sit through a rehash of the exact words the President was going to speak…over and over again. And this rehash was before the speech. Good God, someone should do their homework and not take the easy way out. I guess I expected more from Wolf Blitzer.

The President had barely started his proclamations when CNN had a screen violator asking us all to vote— in real time on the President’s speech. That was it. I had to find a channel that was not part of the political spin that had sickened me in the past decade or so. I am not even sure where I re-tuned but it might have been C-Span or PBS. All I knew was that I wanted no commentary and no asinine opinions. I just wanted to hear it and see it for myself.

CNN had already ruined a good deal of the speech because it pre-told me several times that President Obama was going to pronounce that the worst of times was officially behind us and that “the State of the Union was strong.”

Why am I so offended by these live polls? Because I am a researcher as well as a brand strategist and I have a deep background in research. This is NOT research (read about real research here). This is a self-selecting sample that is in no way representative of the actual responses. What you end up with looks a lot like what spin doctors would produce. It is an inverse bell curve, overly sampled by people at the extremes. Only those who love it or hate it responds. This is why we never build brand messages on self-selecting methodologies or focus groups. It is just process gone wild.

So, CNN, MSNBC, FOX and the other entertainment channels that pretend to be news outlets— I’m done with you. The state of affairs that our nation finds itself in, one of severe disagreement and the inability to govern, might be in many ways a result of the so-called dialog incited by these media giants. Funny how much we mimic those news broadcasts.

I’ve got an idea, why don’t we make the next State of the Union address a reality show? We could comment on the suit selection and have it hosted by Ryan Seacrest.