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Home > Operations Management Viewpoints > Every Company Is a Media Company

Operations Management Viewpoints

Every Company Is a Media Company

by Richard Sambrook

Introduction

Richard Sambrook was an influential and senior BBC executive and leading manager of its news services before joining the Edelman public relations company in 2010. Born in 1956, he was educated at Maidstone Technical High School, the University of Reading (where he gained a BA in English), and Birkbeck College, University of London. He joined BBC Radio News as a subeditor in 1980. He was a BBC journalist and news executive, becoming successively director of BBC Sport, BBC News, and, latterly, director of the BBC World Service and Global News. During this time he was responsible for merging radio and television news, as well as domestic and World Service news-gathering, resulting in the world’s largest broadcast news operation. He oversaw a major restructuring of the World Service and the opening of Arabic and Persian television, as well as of commercial interactive services.

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The Challenge of the New Media

Every company is a media company, no matter what its business or activity. I believe that engagement with the internet is critical to the company that wants to ensure that its message is heard. Equally, a company must be alert to comments on its products, brands, or personnel on the web so that it can produce its responses as quickly as the bloggers produce theirs.

To achieve such a role, a company must undergo a cultural change. This involves two key strategic attitudes. First, it must gear itself to the transparency of the new media. Second, it needs to remove hierarchies from its own media and communications structures.

The need to be transparent is based on the fact that readers are now much better informed about a company’s activities across its various organizations due to the amount of information in circulation on the web. Information is not so easily lost in one remote newspaper or media outlet, as it used to be, because of the activities of websurfers and search engines. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that there is always someone out there who is much better informed about a story than the journalist. The advent of communications technology like the internet, which is so widely available, means that commercial organizations, like the media themselves, need to have greater respect than ever for the consumers of information.

I believe that the speed and efficiency of the technology is a catalyst for corporate change. This produces great challenges for big organizations, which, because they’re big and unwieldy, take time to get themselves together. If there’s some allegation somewhere out there on Twitter, which for some reason is getting picked up and circulated, you haven’t got two days to go into a corporate meeting to sort out your response; you’ve got an hour or two at most. Big organizations struggle with being able to respond that dynamically. They need to find a way of doing it, and they need to have people who understand this new environment, who are empowered to do that.

A rumor can gather momentum with great speed on the web, especially if it is championed by a skillful blogger or commentator. It was Churchill who said that “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

I believe that slicker and more efficient processes for preparing responses to a journalist’s critique of a company are critical. The old and laborious top-down processes will be too cumbersome to reverse the momentum of criticism. Communications functions need to be shaken up, ensuring swifter communication between the company’s knowledge centers and its media and news dissemination functions. Senior management needs to understand new communications technology. Managers need to be aware not only of the information that is in circulation, but also of the company’s own communications strategy and media. The media-orientated company is very inclusive, unhierarchical, and engaged. New communications technologies are also highly challenging to the stratified institution that puts media into a discrete department that does not adequately communicate with hands-on management and staff.

I would argue that the same media that have the scope to damage a company through reputational loss also present the company with some extraordinary opportunities. It can, for example, have its own journalists who blog on the web to enhance the company’s presence. Companies can also launch their own television channels to compete with independent stations. Finally, they may wish over time to link up with other companies across many sectors to launch an entirely separate corporate internet, a most radical and speculative proposal!

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The Internet

I am convinced that the value of the internet as a showcase for your company cannot be exaggerated. There is an increasing appetite among companies to tell their own stories and have direct access to their consumers, stakeholders, and suppliers as well. They are beginning to recognize that the means to do this can be their own website or television channel; it can be through social media, on Twitter or Facebook, or whatever else; they’re beginning to recognize the effectiveness of direct communication with the public, and of being able to inform those conversations, and there is huge potential in all of that.

The web presents a company with a forum that is not controlled by a media company on which to present its point of view and inform the wider debate. It is no longer dependent on journalists and commentators, who may have their established prejudices. The internet allows the company to go direct to the audience, rather than through a mediated channel. It represents a remarkable shift. They don’t have to go to a magazine and argue to get a little paragraph on page 7 any more. They can do it themselves, and go direct to the public in a rather sophisticated media sense, which is far more powerful. In terms of telling their own story, they can be very effective. You’d hope that responsible organizations do it with integrity and values and so on, and I think the vast majority of them will do so.

There is no doubt that the use of journalists sponsored by a company to blog about it is now a widespread practice among more savvy corporations. I advise companies using this technique to make sure that they are transparent and open about the provenance of the information retailed by the journalist. The company that is shown to be deceiving the wider media will instantly lose face. Indeed, independent journalists, alert as they now are to the extensive use of sponsored bloggers, will assume that the opaque and untransparent company has something to hide that is to its detriment. The key to corporate blogging is transparency. If someone gets a journalist who pretends to be independent when they’re not, that’s just going to lead to problems because they will be found out, which is a very stupid thing to do. If they’re transparent about it, it’s just another conversation that’s out there, and people can take it or leave it, and make up their own minds about it.

Technology is moving very quickly and I advise corporates reviewing their media strategies to think beyond blogging. A blog is a rather static way of doing it now, and it’s much more about Twitter and other media forms. These conversations are much faster, much more dynamic, and you have to be in there. Someone can put something up on Twitter and it’ll spread out, so you need to be back in there within an hour or two saying well, actually, here’s another point of view.

While corporates are exploring the latest forms of media and communications, I have observed that some have gone one step further and are discussing the possibility of creating an entirely separate internet structure. This would deal with the vexed issue of payment for access to websites. The new structure would run in parallel to the “public web” and users would be required to pay to enter this “private web.” Corporates would collect a subscription and would reserve their most exclusive information for the pay-to-use web. There are a number of suggestions by big corporates and others that they could build a parallel internet, a commercial internet. You’d have to pay for this, there would be different terms of access.

I would observe that this raises the question about the free flow of information. A philosophical debate is starting about whether it is right that the internet is free to all forever—or, actually, should you get more if you’re prepared to pay, or get something different if you’re prepared to pay?

Companies is every field are under growing pressure to make money out of the web as more users turn away from traditional media and seek their information on the internet and in new media. It is not obvious that subscriptions are the answer. Newspapers have to find a viable business model, so it’s perfectly reasonable to look at subscription. Content is not free and it’s got to be paid for, whether through advertising or subscriptions or something else. I don’t think it’ll work because you are sacrificing about 80% of your traffic—the casual grazers, who come through Google and just want to look at whatever they’ve searched for—for the 20% who are brand loyalists.

I am concerned that you’re going to shut out the people who just casually come across the site, because actually they don’t spend very long there; they’re not very loyal, and they’re not looking at the ads. So, we’ll sacrifice all of them, and we’ll get more value out of the people who actually want what our product is producing, and are prepared to subscribe to it.

I accept that there may be an economic case for such an approach. But I am concerned that you’re starting to build up walls, so you’re not part of the public realm and the public debate on the web. Articles start not to show up on Google, or if they do show up people can’t look at them without having to decide whether they want to take out a subscription; you start to shut off your content, and the debate around your content, into a smaller and smaller subcommunity. Meanwhile the whole public realm is going on outside, and it becomes different.

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Conclusion

The state-of-the-art company has always placed communications at the top of its list of priorities. But now the effort required to monitor and maximize the power of communications has increased as technology moves forward at breakneck speed. This means that more money needs to be spent on keeping up with the latest and most sophisticated media.

Although there is a cost, there is also an opportunity. As the latest media offer companies greater and more free exposure, many argue that companies have no choice but to follow where the new media lead. Every company needs to be a media company, and those that duck the choice will be made to rue their decision. The internet is an unforgiving institution.

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Further reading

Books:

  • Gillin, Paul. The New Influencers: A Marketer’s Guide to the New Social Media. Sanger, CA: Quill Driver Books/Word Dancer Press, 2007.
  • Gillmor, Dan. We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, 2004.
  • Kovach, Bill, and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001.
  • Tapscott, Don. Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009.

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