What are the ramifications for the NY Times publishing WikiLeaks documents?

Tom Dougherty, CEO – Stealing Share

30 November 2010

Did the NYT live up to its brand promise?

This is not a polemic on the rights of free press. I leave that to others. My expertise is on branding and this most recent WikiLeaks incident demonstrates an aspect of brand relevancy that would be difficult to demonstrate any better in a laboratory.

Brand is measured as a permission. Think about it like this. What does a brand have permission to do and not do? What does a brand demand of the business to remain true to the brand promise and live up to its brand permissions? Is the NY Times’ brand summarized in its famous theme line, ”All the news that’s fit to print”? If it is, there are two basic problems that the Times needs to deal with.

“Had the New York Times understood that we (the reading public) are not “all the news that is fit to print,” but rather the smart, discerning and informed, the editorial staff would have had permission to pass.”

The first problem is that the brand, as currently stated, is inside-out. It is not about the reader. Instead, it is all about the newspaper. It is a description of what the newspaper promises to do but it does not describe who the reader believes they are when they read it.


This is an important and subtle difference. Here’s why. Since it is currently about the newspaper itself, the Times had to print the WikiLeaks documents. After all, the brand promises to print everything. When you think about it, the current brand promise is a “dumb” (meaning non-intelligent) promise.

So the current “dumb” brand promise dictated the New York Times to print the WikiLeaks documents, even if the editorial staff deemed them ultimately damaging to the society that currently pays their bills. They had to do it.

This means the Times may pay the price for this lack of choice. In a free market, if the buying and advertising public (their current customers) believes the New York Times’ action was not in keeping with their own self-interests, they can vote with their wallets and the Times will pay a steep price. (And circulation at the Times is dropping.)

I want to applaud the editorial board of the Times for so steadfastly defending their brand promise (as they currently understand it). Many companies can learn a great deal from the Times’ willingness to remain true to their brand, regardless of consequence.


But the Times made a fundamental mistake. The business of its business is in printing all the news that’s fit to print. But its business of the brand is very different. Those that read the paper believe the brand is about how smart and informed they (the readers) are for having chosen it. Information (informed) is a support point to the more emotional “smart.” Part of “smart” is to be discerning about what one reads and what one does. It is the decision made as to the appropriateness that defines how smart we are with the information we get.

Had the New York Times understood that we (the reading public) are not “all the news that is fit to print,” but rather the smart, discerning and informed, the editorial staff would have had permission to pass.

Instead, because brand permissions are so misunderstood, we all pay the price for the New York Times’ ignorance.

See more posts in the following related categories: Brand permission New York Times WikiLeaks



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